Congress confronts core issues of faith-based initiative

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For months, the rhetoric swirling about the president's faith-based initiative has been less than helpful, with both sides using language apparently designed not to clarify but to provoke.

Some opponents of "charitable choice," for example, assert that the American people oppose the faith-based proposal, whereas polls show that a majority supports the idea, although many have serious concerns they feel should be addressed. And when speaking recently to the US Conference of Mayors, President Bush implied that critics wanted to cut off funding to programs run by Catholic

Charities and the Salvation Army, whereas these programs are precursors to "charitable choice" and represent the type of faith-based service critics prefer.

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Finally, however, signs suggest the shift from divisive rhetoric to dealing on the major issues may be getting under way.

Quietly and out of the public glare, the administration and Republican leaders in the House of Representatives made some changes last week to the Community Solutions Act (HR 7) that deal directly with a central issue of concern to critics: the separation of church and state.

Under the portion of the bill that would expand "charitable choice" to other federal programs, religious groups that receive grants would now be required to keep any religious activity or instruction separate from the government-funded programming, and sign a certificate of compliance to that effect. Participation in the religious activity by social-service recipients would be strictly voluntary. The bill also requires that groups receiving grants set up a separate account for the government-funded program.

"That's a very positive development for those of us concerned with money going to ... a program that overtly promotes a specific religious perspective," says Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee, a religious-liberty lobbying group.

The changes came just as the House Judiciary Committee was to consider the bill, and chairman James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin had warned that constitutional issues could sink it. Passing that hurdle on June 28, the House leadership wants to bring the bill to the floor for a vote by summer's end.

"This is an idea whose time has come," says House Republican Conference chairman J.C. Watts Jr. (R) of Oklahoma. "I look forward to passage by the Ways and Means Committee and the House later this summer."

Some in the religious community, however, are seeking genuine interchange on remaining issues. Leaders of six mainline Protestant denominations called on Congress June 28 to take the bill "off the fast track" and show "a willingness to engage in further review and discussion."

Key issues, Ms. Hollman says, include the provision that allows groups to hire only those of their own faith as employees in tax-funded programs, and the extent to which religious groups will be held to the same licensing and accountability standards as secular groups providing services.

In a national survey, 78 percent of Americans opposed the hiring provision. Potential problems on the standards issue were highlighted when the Texas legislature last month allowed a law to expire that had been part of Gov. George W. Bush's faith-based initiative in the state. The law exempted church-run youth homes from state inspections, The Washington Post reports, but charges of abuse and a recent conviction in one case led legislators to drop the exemption.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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