The Magazine

The House Keeps Faith with Bush

The president's initiative passes its first big hurdle.

Jul 30, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 43 • By JOE LOCONTE
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LAST WEEK’S HOUSE PASSAGE of President Bush’s faith-based initiative is a significant victory for the administration in its embattled effort to broaden religious organizations’ involvement in providing social services. Two crucial pieces of the bill—protecting religious charities’ freedom to hire those who share their beliefs, and allowing the voucherization of federal funds—survived intact, the former after heated debate, the latter largely unnoticed. But a third component, designed to encourage individuals’ charitable giving, was gutted.

The Community Solutions Act, passed by a vote of 233 to 198, would greatly enlarge the stream of federal social-service dollars for which religious charities can compete. It would cover more than 80 federal programs worth $53 billion a year, ranging from juvenile delinquency to job training.

More important, it would change the rules by which government support is awarded. The legislation would make it unlawful for federal grantors to exclude groups from funding because of their religious character—a common complaint from charity leaders. While organizations like Lutheran Social Services and the Jewish Federation have long received federal grants, they mostly have been forced to keep their services free of religious influence. The House bill would protect their right to control the "definition, development, practice, and expression" of their religious beliefs.

The bill’s preservation of faith-based groups’ right to hire staff who share their religious mission proved the focus of controversy in the House. For months, liberals such as Bobby Scott, senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, attacked this provision as a reversal of anti-discrimination laws. But defenders point to an exemption for religious groups under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, along with several court rulings that have upheld and widened the protection. And it was written into the 1996 "charitable choice" law, which opened some anti-poverty funds to religious charities without requiring them to hide their religious character. "To bar a religious organization from hiring on a religious basis is to assail the very animating cause for which the organization was formed," says Carl Esbeck, who helped draft charitable choice.

"This is like mother’s milk to Catholic Charities," says Sharon Daly, the agency’s vice president for social policy. "I’ve never seen a fight like this about whether religious agencies can hire their own people. I’m appalled." Don Eberly, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, calls it "the bright line in the sand" for the president’s initiative.

Virtually all of the bill’s supporters say they will walk if their religious exemption disappears. The Senate may put them to the test. Majority leader Tom Daschle, who may not schedule debate before next year, told reporters, "I can’t imagine that we could pass any bill that would tolerate slipping back into a level of tolerance that would be unacceptable in today’s society."

How the Senate handles vouchers also bears watching. The House bill would allow federal administrators to create a voucher option wherever "feasible and efficient." This means that program funds, instead of being awarded to service providers, could be given to individuals eligible for assistance in the form of certificates they would use to pay for secular or religious services of their choosing. Faith-based groups accepting vouchers would be free to integrate religion into their programs—no questions asked. There is precedent for this. Since 1990, poor families have used federally funded certificates to pay for day care at church-run facilities, with no court challenges to slow them down.

Supporters see this as the sleeping giant of the initiative. The reason: Vouchers divert decision-making power from Washington bureaucrats to individuals in need, while shifting more responsibility for the poor to states and grass-roots groups. The House bill would give federal administrators discretion to convert all or part of the $53 billion to vouchers.

The voucher option arose because of doubts about the bill’s ability to negotiate church-state landmines. Some religious charities, wary of the rules that come with government grants, are willing to consider vouchers. Shannon Royce, legislative counsel at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention—a denomination that historically has vigorously championed church-state separation—thinks many ministries would approve vouchers. Stephen Burger, executive director of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, says his program directors remain suspicious of direct federal assistance. But indirect aid is another matter: "The voucher system is the answer," he says. "A properly written voucher program would get some real attention."