The Family Protection Act: handle with care

The proposed Family Protection Act of 1981 offers some improvements over the similar legislation that expired in committee during the last Congress. But it still contains enough dubious provisions to require enormous pruning and revision if it is not to warrant failure again. To take but one category, there are seemingly innocent items that open the door to evasion of the constitutional separation of church and state. Congress ought to resist any temptation to rubber stamp them in thoughtless deference to the "family" rubric, which deserves better than this, or to the increased prominence of the bill's far-right supporters since the last election.

There is every reason to pursue the stated aim of the legislation, which is to preserve the integrity of the American family. It is not too much to say that the integrity of the nation depends on the integrity of the family. Though this derives fundamentally from the principled conduct and devotion of individuals, it can be affected by government policy. The example is often given of welfare regulations that encourage fathers to stay away from home.

So a legislative effort to examine and reform federal policy on behalf of the family is welcome. And some proposals in the current bill look promising, such as tax relief to revive the home care for elderly dependents that used to be taken for granted. At least this kind of subsidy cannot be dismissed out of hand when subsidies are provided for tobacco and other less worthy causes.

But such items are overshadowed by ones that can hardly contribute to the security of the American family if, as it seems, they undermine hard-won constitutional or other legal guarantees. For example, the proposed "education savings accounts" would provide advantages for taxpayers setting aside money for children or other relatives to attend various educational institutions including private elementary and secondary schools. Since most of these schools in the United States are parochial schools, this appears to be a less obvious move toward the same ends as the tuition tax credit drive. The latter is under well-deserved attack not only on church-state grounds but as a threat to public education and an unjustice to taxpayers who would have to make up the revenue lost through such credits.

Also in the church-state realm are provisions to exempt religious organizations such as schools and orphanages from certain federal regulations on employment and discrimination; to prevent any federal prohibition of released time from schools for "parenthood education" by churches; and, on the question of school prayer, to "reverse the last 19 years of Supreme Court decisions and subsequent case law regarding the constitutionality of state-sponsored religious exercises in the public schools."

Other aspects of the bill, too, seem designed to use federal policy for philosophical rather than strictly family objectives. Much has been made of the prohibition on federal funds for educational materials which "do not reflect a balance between the status role of men and women, do not reflect different ways in which women and men live, and do not contribute to the American way of life as it has been historically understood." Asked what this meant, Senator Jepsen, who introduced the bill, said: "We should appreciate the role of women as mother and homemaker . . . ."

American should and does appreciate this role of women, as well as all the additional roles they have distinguished through the years. But Congress may find the legislative means questionable even where it agrees with the philosophy.

Already omitted is a provision in the failed bill that would have made employment discrimination against homosexuals legal in all cases. But there remains a ban on the use of Legal Services funds in cases simply seeking to adjudicate homosexual rights. Indeed, no grants for any purposes could go to an organization whose activities include legal assistance in such cases. The same applies to cases relating to abortion and, as if it were somehow in the same category, divorce. Legal Services funds would also be withheld not only from litigation to achievem school desegregation, as at present, but from the currently permissible legal advice on a client's own legal rights and responsibilities in desegregation proceedings.

In further legal matters, such as juvenile delinquency, child abuse, and spouse abuse, the bill would insulate state statutes from federal action. Congress will have to decide whether states will act more responsibly on these tragic problems without federal involvement. Certainly it is in the direction of today's trend toward removing the federal hand. But in other provisions the Family Protection Act would bring federal influence more than ever into family decisionmaking.

For example, a taxpayer would get an additional $1,000 personal exemption in the year a child is born to or adopted by the taxpayer. There would be an extra age of six.In the case of international adoption, expenses of more than $500 but not more than $4,500 would be deductible. Should federal policy be used for such specific goals in family building?

The list could go on. The challenge to Congress is not to hurry the bill through like some other recent legislation only to find out later that it might have acted differ ently if it had used more care.

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