How new faith-based bill would affect local churches

Senate bill allows charitable deductions for religious groups but no direct federal aid.

If a compromise between the White House and the Senate becomes law, the Ten Commandments will no longer stand between Tom Lewis and a federal grant for his after-school program.

In an agreement reached last week, religious organizations that provide social services would be eligible for federal funds even if they mention God in their mission statement, have a religious title, or display religious icons.

That means the Decalogue, which hangs on the wall of Mr. Lewis's faith-based Fishing School here, would not be an obstacle to obtaining federal support. "This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and we're working for the people," says Lewis, who says he provides learning - and love - for about 120 children a year.

A year ago, President Bush stood side by side with Lewis when he launched his so-called faith-based initiative - the cornerstone of his "compassionate" agenda. Over the course of the year, however, his pledge to allow religious-based groups to compete for federal funding on equal footing with secular groups languished in the Senate.

Now, with the most controversial aspects of the legislation dropped, and with a little presidential arm-twisting of House Republicans, political observers expect the Senate compromise to make it to the president's desk.

"I doubt this is a situation where Republicans would vote against the president," says Marvin Olasky, a senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

For all the focus on faith-based groups, however, the Senate agreement actually does little specifically for religious organizations involved in social work.

The thrust of the $12 billion bill, sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, is directed toward re-energizing charitable giving. The Senate bill would allow the 75 percent of Americans who do not itemize on their tax returns to take a deduction for donations to charities - up to $400 for individuals, $800 for couples.

Churches, synagogues and mosques would benefit, but so would the whole universe of charities without a religious base.

The bill would also create a $150 million fund to help smaller charities negotiate the federal grant process, as well as increase social service block grants. The technical help would be especially welcomed by people like the Fishing School's Lewis, but again, it could just as easily apply to secular programs.

Nathan Diament, director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, says that big charities such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities get millions of federal dollars while small religious groups are routinely turned down for something as minor as having a religious reference in their name or in their mission statement.

The Senate bill removes these barriers.

While the president's initial proposal embraced all of these ideas, he's had to compromise in two critical areas. The bill covers two years; the White House wanted a 10-year program. Also, the senators dropped a highly controversial provision known as "charitable choice," which would have allowed faith-based groups to compete on par with secular groups for federal funds.

Specifically, the House bill would have allowed them to hire social workers based on religion. But the idea that churches, for instance, could refuse to hire homosexuals for religious reasons was nixed by the Senate. Even with charitable choice, however, many programs which the president has praised would not have qualified for federal dollars, says Mr. Olasky. That's because their religious message is swirled into their social work.

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