Monday, October 20, 2003

Religious, taxpayer-advocacy and property rights groups are opposing the Senate bill on religious charity because of an environmental tax break they say hurts them and has nothing to do with helping church groups.

The Senate-passed bill and its House-passed counterpart, are scaled-down versions of President Bush’s original faith-based initiative and consist mostly of tax incentives aimed at spurring donations to faith-based and secular charities.

But the Senate bill has a few provisions that do not directly relate to religious groups, including one that would give a tax break to people who sell land for conservation purposes.

At least 34 groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union and the American Association of Christian Schools said this provision wrongly favors conservation groups over church-based social services.

“It is our belief that the Charitable Giving Act is intended to encourage and benefit faith-based institutions,” reads a letter dated yesterday and signed by the groups.

“And yet incredibly, this proposal would place those very faith-based institutions, such as churches, orphanages and private schools, at a comparative disadvantage in property purchases compared to land trusts and government agencies, neither of which are faith-based.”

The letter, addressed to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, urges them to “strongly oppose” the Senate bill and instead endorse the House version, which “contains no special provisions for land trusts.”

The Association of Christian Schools International also wrote a letter to the two chairmen, complaining the bills were “initially designed as ‘charitable choice’” measures to help religious charities gain equal footing with secular groups. The bills were not designed as “special benefit bills for land trusts,” the letter reads.

The Senate bill also has other provisions that do not directly relate to religious groups, including one that would give a tax break to Alaskan whaling captains. Another provision would exempt blood-collecting organizations from excise taxes.

For any of these provisions to be addressed, the legislation must be sent to a House-Senate conference committee, and Senate Democrats are preventing this.

Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, tried to do so Friday but was stopped by an objection from Minority Whip Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. An earlier objection from Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, was resolved, Republican aides said, but now there is a new one.

“There seems to be a rolling Democratic hold on the bill,” said one Republican Senate aide. “It seems like they may be playing games.”

Another Republican aide said Democratic leaders are obstructing movement of the bill to conference because they feel Democrats have been treated unfairly in conference committees lately.

“Conferences haven’t worked very well in this Congress,” complained Mr. Reid as he objected to the bill Friday.

This argument should not apply to the charities bill, however, because it “truly is a bipartisan bill,” one of the Republican aides said. The Senate passed the bill overwhelmingly, 95-5, in April. The House passed its charity bill 408-13 in September.

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