- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The House Appropriations Committee approved three more spending bills yesterday after Republicans beat back Democratic efforts to cut off faith-based organizations’ access to federal funds.

Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat, offered a hastily crafted amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill that would ensure that none of the funds appropriated in the bill would go to any group that “discriminates in job hiring based on religion.”

Mr. Edwards’ amendment was defeated by a vote of 32-27. Every Democrat voted for the amendment, along with two Republicans, Reps. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois and Donald L. Sherwood of Pennsylvania.

The measure was a response to a White House position paper sent to Capitol Hill Tuesday that argued that faith-based organizations that receive federal funds — an effort that President Bush champions — “should retain their right to hire those individuals who are best able to further their organizations’ goals and mission.”

A Catholic church that operates a soup kitchen funded partly through federal grants, for instance, should be allowed to hire only fellow Catholics, according to Mr. Bush. Such “religious hiring rights,” said the White House document, are part of a religious organization’s basic civil rights.

But allowing that to happen, Mr. Edwards said, would mean Congress would “legalize racial discrimination in this country,” imagining a Jewish or Catholic organization refusing to hire a black Southern Baptist.

“Do you or do you not think that Americans should be discriminated against in a federal program based on their religion?” Mr. Edwards said. “One shouldn’t have to choose between a job and their faith.”

Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat, warned the United States could begin going down “a slow road” to the theocracy of Iran.

“You start putting religion and government money together, and you are going to have real problems,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Republicans sharply rebuked those characterizations, pointing to the long record of good works by faith-based organizations, and stressing that groups that receive federal dollars know they can’t use it to proselytize.

“The reason people are in faith-based groups is because of their faith,” shouted Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican.

Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, called the amendment a “poison pill,” and Rep. Zach Wamp, Tennessee Republican, said it “would not chill the involvement of faith based groups, it would kill it.”

“I hate to question the motives of anyone,” Mr. Wamp said. “But [Mr. Edwards] is a person who is vehemently opposed” to Mr. Bush’s faith-based initiative.

“This is a rear-guard effort to kill it, and that’s the truth,” Mr. Wamp said.

Mr. Edwards withdrew another amendment that would bar federal funds from being used to restore historic churches if they are still active. He said he plans to bring it up on the House floor later this year.

Meanwhile, the $138 billion Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill was approved along party lines. The committee also ushered through a $19.6 billion discretionary spending bill for the Interior Department, and a $17 billion agriculture bill.

A major conflict arose during debate over an instruction in the Interior bill to defund the Klamath Fishery Management Council. The council, created by Congress, caused controversy when it ruled in 2001 to increase the water flow of the Klamath River in Oregon and Northern California for the benefit of the endangered Lost River sucker and the short nose sucker, and the threatened coho salmon.

Increasing the water flow in the river took irrigation routes away from more than a thousand local farmers, many of whom were financially ruined.

Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican led the opposition to a Democratic amendment to restore the council’s funding.

“I’ve only thrown two groups out of my office, and these guys” — the Klamath Council — “are one of them,” Mr. Cunningham said. “These rats came into my office and asked to buy farmland at 10 cents on the dollar. I threw the sweet young bippies out.”

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