- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

There’s a heated behind-the-scenes battle brewing in the Senate to kill language in a mental health and social services law that allows religious groups who receive federal funds to continue hiring only people of their particular faith.

A coalition of mostly liberal groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, with some religious groups, oppose the language — known as charitable choice — which was added to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) law in 2000. They want to change it so that it requires religious groups that accept federal money under SAMHSA to hire people outside of their faith.

A coalition of multidenominational religious groups is fighting to save the language, and the scuffle is complicating efforts in the Senate to renew the SAMHSA law. SAMHSA funds and administers a slew of outreach and intervention programs, doling out grants to social service groups that help fight mental illness and addiction.

“Our top goal is to see that no money is spent in ways that subsidize religious discrimination,” said Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United, which is part of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD). He said ideally, the groups would like language added to SAMHSA to make this clear.

Both sides are penning letters to Senate health and education panel Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and top panel Republican Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, who have led the effort to craft a SAMHSA-renewal bill.

“Asking faith-based organizations to ignore religion in making staffing decisions is like asking senators to disregard party affiliation and political ideology in choosing their staff, or requiring the Sierra Club or the Human Rights Campaign to ignore the political and philosophical commitments of potential staff,” argued the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom in a letter to Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Enzi.

A Kennedy spokeswoman said Friday that “Chairman Kennedy plans to mark this bill up soon — it’s a high priority.” She said there is “concern by some senators wanting to remove the charitable choice language from current SAMHSA law,” but didn’t elaborate.

A Senate Republican aide said the SAMHSA bill, which has been crafted over the past year in a bipartisan manner, is “very close to being on life support” because Republican panel members are angry charitable choice is in jeopardy.

Under the Civil Rights Act, religious groups are allowed to only hire people of their particular faith. The battle erupts over what should happen when these groups accept federal dollars.

Supporters of charitable choice said before it was in place many faith-based groups were treated poorly by government agencies and shied away from applying for federal money, fearing they would have to change their religious nature. Many of these groups are highly effective in helping the addicted and mentally ill, supporters said, and without charitable choice, many of them won’t apply for federal aid, perhaps dropping out.

“We need all hands on deck; we need everyone involved in this effort, including faith-based organizations,” said Arne Owens, a top adviser at SAMHSA, who noted that 23 million Americans have substance-abuse problems requiring treatment. “Our concern is that if this language is taken out, it will have a severe chilling effect on the faith-based group participation.”

The charitable-choice policy was added to the SAMHSA law toward the end of the Clinton administration. Congress has included it in at least three major federal programs over the years, beginning with welfare reform in the mid-1990s. President Bush has been a strong advocate for it. In his State of the Union speech last month, he asked Congress to make charitable choice a permanent part of federal law.

While charitable choice allows religious groups to receive federal dollars and continue hiring only people of their faith, supporters noted that it also bans these groups from using the money to proselytize or from turning away needy clients who hold different beliefs.

Critics like Mr. Conn said those lines are often blurred and faith-based groups receiving federal dollars should not be allowed to hire only one type of person.

Faith-based groups have never been barred from taking federal money, as long as they follow the rules, stated a letter sent by the CARD coalition to Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Enzi last month. Charitable choice, the letter stated, “undermines critical religious liberty protections under the First Amendment.”

Some religious groups have argued that it sets government and religion on a collision course. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a member of CARD, wrote in a separate letter that religion “must be freely exercised and is served best when it is neither advanced nor inhibited by government.”

Meanwhile, Republican aides said if the CARD coalition convinces Democrat allies in the Senate to strip the language from SAMHSA, it could result in charitable choice being stripped from other federal programs.

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