Bush and Funding of Faith

President Bush has been remarkably effective in compromising with Congress to push his biggest campaign promises. He's won partial victories on tax cuts and education reform. In both cases, he gave ground on some points in the hope of gaining more later, happy just to win on a few principles.

The latest example of this camel's-nose-in-the-tent strategy is Mr. Bush's compromise on his plan to expand federal support for social services run by religious groups, or the so-called faith-based initiative (inaptly dubbed FBI). He sees faith organizations as a needed government partner in addressing such problems as drug addiction.

He has endorsed a bill that marks a critical compromise for him: Religious groups would not be able to discriminate on religious grounds in the hiring of social workers when using public money for public services. The bill is sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania.

That compromise is necessary for any FBI bill to pass the Senate, where many Democrats regard federal support for private social work as a GOP Trojan horse to cut social programs run by federal agencies. In fact, it's not clear where the estimated $12 billion cost of the bill will come from.

Senator Lieberman, a moderate Democrat who ran against Bush as Al Gore's vice-presidential candidate, will be a helpmate for Bush in arguing for the bill, especially on its provision allowing federal support for religious groups even if they have a religious name, or display religious icons, at places for social work. That provision alone could be a way for Bush to keep the flame of his faith-based concerns burning.

In many ways, the bill represents true compromise, and the public may gain. It increases money for federal grants states use to provide services to needy families. Taxpayers who don't itemize would get a break for charitable contributions.

The Senate bill is still some distance from passage. But it's a useful first step toward Congress fine-tuning the constitutional boundary between church and state. Lawmakers and Supreme Court justices are aware of public pressure to allow more spiritually impelled activism into the public arena, whether it's letting students hold prayer sessions in schools or funding a church-run program to train welfare recipients for work.

The church-state wall must remain intact. But it won't fall if a few windows let some light shine through.

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