- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

The White House and lawmakers have been steadily implementing a charitable-choice system that addresses the needs of America's homeless, hungry and drug-addicted. Debate over the specifics of this system will surely grow in coming days and weeks, as charitable-choice policy continues to take shape. There are legitimate policy questions that still must be answered, but the central focus of the system makes sense: America's needy often seek spiritual (and not necessarily religious) support to recover from life challenges that can be provided by private groups. Government must carefully balance its goal of supporting broader charitable choices with its commitment to keep church and state separate.
Earlier this month, the Senate Finance Committee approved a faith-based bill sponsored by Sens. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. The Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act is expected to reach the Senate floor shortly. The bill primarily expands tax deductions for charitable contributions, including those to religious organizations. The measure would allow the 86 million Americans who don't itemize their taxes to deduct a part of their charitable donations, and give farmers and restaurants a tax break for donating food. In addition, the bill would provide $150 million each year for technical assistance to small community and faith-based charities. The bill would cost $11 billion over 10 years, and funding would come at a critical time. Between January and October of last year, nearly half of 2,725 charitable groups reported a drop in contributions.
President Bush has proposed allocating $600 million over the next three years on vouchers for drug-rehabilitation programs. Under the plan, substance abusers would choose a program for treatment, and that program would then receive federal funding.
On Tuesday, the White House hosted a conference in San Diego to give religious groups across the country technical help in competing for federal funding. Also, the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently proposed changing its rules to allow public funds to go towards the construction, acquisition or renovation of houses of worship.
Clearly, officials have been working hard to strengthen the so-called armies of compassion. The White House and Congress are at their best when their policies allow the service-seeker or taxpayer to decide which programs they will join or fund. Government treads on a constitutionally slippery slope when it dictates the allocation of federal dollars to religious or secular groups although this practice has been in place since 1996. And when government funds charities directly, those organizations are required to neutralize the very religious message that can help the needy overcome their difficulties. For this reason, tax deductions and vouchers make for wise policy, while using public dollars for church construction, for example, is problematic.
The White House must flush out some general standards for programs that receive federal vouchers. Minimum accountability standards must be established to qualify for funding, for example especially since relapse often is part of the recovery process.
However, to wholly ignore the significance of faith during recovery would be a sterile interpretation of complex human needs.


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