- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

A broad bipartisan working group released a report yesterday recommending several ways the government and private sectors can assist faith-based and community social-service providers.

Recommendations include giving the groups technical assistance and providing tax incentives to encourage charitable giving. But the group could not reach consensus on expanding "charitable choice," an initiative that allows religious social-service groups to take federal money without changing their religious nature.

"The point we're trying to make is that you can do so much good without ever getting to those issues," said panel member Elliot Mincberg, vice president of People for the American Way.

White House spokeswoman Ann Womack said the report is "another voice calling for action" and "provides further impetus for the Senate to act quickly" on a faith-based proposal that is being crafted by Sens. Joseph I. Leiberman, Connecticut Democrat, and Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, in conjunction with the White House.

The senators and the White House want to act on several of the report's recommendations. They include allowing deductions for charitable donations by taxpayers who do not itemize on their tax returns, and establishing a "compassion fund" to provide direct technical assistance to faith-based and small community groups, to help them apply for federal grants and convert to nonprofit status.

The working group included representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Baptist Convention, Teen Challenge, National Council of Churches and People for the American Way.

"If the broad spectrum of groups can agree on this, certainly Congress can agree on this," Mr. Santorum said.

The House passed a bill in the summer that included tax incentives, but also expanded "charitable choice" by allowing a broad new range of religious social service groups to take federal money without changing their religious nature. Among other things, the groups would be able to make hiring decision based on religious beliefs without losing federal funds.

Critics said the measure could violate First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and subsidize discriminatory hiring practices. The Senate has not passed the bill.

"There isn't the broad support in the Senate for some of the things [the House has] done," said Mr. Santorum.

The White House and supporters in Congress are putting aside charitable choice provisions for now and urging action on the tax incentives and other areas of agreement.

"We're looking for the areas in which there is common ground, like the report says," said Miss Womack.

"We'd all like to see some other things done, but we're excited about what's here and we think that, if enacted, it would make an enormous difference," said panel member Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action.

Mr. Sider stressed that the report does not mean an expansion of charitable choice is beyond reach.

He noted that it would take only a majority vote to move that measure through Congress, while the 33-member working group required unanimous agreement for all of the report's recommendations.

Panel member Robert Woodson Sr., president of National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said, "We hope that part of this [report] will ignite a cultural discussion of the role of faith in life."

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