Faith-based initiatives quietly lunge forward

Proposals on drug-program funding and religious buildings raise civil libertarians' ire.

When the Senate failed last year to act on President Bush's signature "faith-based initiative," the White House did not give up.

Bit by bit, through executive orders and changes in agency regulations, the administration has been carrying out the initiative anyway. Its goal is to allow religious groups to compete more easily for federal funds to address under-served social needs, such as helping the homeless and the drug-addicted. Seven government departments now have faith-based offices, which steer religious groups toward billions of dollars in grant money.

Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee was set to approve legislation that would allow people who do not itemize on their taxes to deduct a portion of their charitable giving, a move that would benefit religious organizations. But among the president's faith-based plans, this item isn't especially controversial.

The most controversial proposal to date has come out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development: HUD has proposed a change in its rules to allow taxpayer money to be used for the construction, acquisition, or rehabilitation of houses of worship. Under the plan, the government would subsidize those portions of a building that would be used for social services, such as food pantries, counseling, or homeless shelters.

Until now, HUD has been the only federal agency that explicitly forbade grants to religious groups. If the new rule is approved, after the public comment period ends in mid-March, that restriction would no longer apply.

Civil liberties groups have promised legal action if the plan goes into effect, arguing that it violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Even some supporters of the administration's overall faith-based initiative believe the HUD plan goes too far.

"It's as close to the church-state line as I think the administration has gotten," says Joe Loconte, a religion fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "When government money goes directly to houses of worship, it will invite unnecessary government intrusion. My concern is for the health and independence of religious institutions."

He and others support an alternative: the use of vouchers. A homeless person could receive a voucher at a government-run shelter and use it at a religious one. That would remove the government from the construction of religious buildings and insulate HUD from issues of church-state separation. Already, Bush in his State of the Union address proposed a $600 million voucher program that would allow drug addicts to choose between religious and secular programs. By receiving federal funds through vouchers, faith-based drug-addiction programs could retain religious content.

Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, says the voucher concept would be hard to apply to building and renovation. He asks: "How does improving a building get done through vouchers?"

Advocates of the faith-based initiative point to the Supreme Court's decision last June allowing Cleveland to use vouchers to help pay for children's education at parochial or nonreligious schools. The key is that the children have a choice between religious and secular options. It's a far cry from the late 1940s, when the court ruled that no government assistance could go to any religious institution, period.

The Cleveland case, and other recent rulings, have laid out a principle of equal treatment for religious and secular groups. The administration, fueled by Bush's own religious convictions, is trying to "level the playing field" for religious groups providing social services. "The president feels strongly that this initiative is about the poor, not about process," says Mr. Towey.

"Charitable choice" is not new. Under the welfare reform of 1996, faith-based organizations can compete for federal grants. In 2001, the House of Representatives passed faith-based legislation with new charitable-choice provisions that would have allowed faith groups to apply for federal grants without playing down their religious messages. The measure stalled in the Senate over an amendment that would have required religious organizations receiving federal funds not to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

Now that Republicans control the Senate again, the lead sponsors of the "charitable choice" legislation - Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania and Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut - will try again to pass their bill without the hiring provision.

Looking down the road, though, the Supreme Court can expect more cases addressing the constitutionality of the faith-based initiative.

The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State is looking especially closely at the proposals on building construction and on the use of vouchers for drug treatment. Both will take time to work their way through the courts. But if the proposal on construction comes to pass, "that effort is doomed," says Barry Lynn, head of Americans United.

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