Vouchers for Addicts

Treating drug addicts or alcoholics can be done in many ways, but success often comes simply by a change of heart - a sincere choice to be free of addiction - and sometimes by prayer.

President Bush recognized that critical point in his State of the Union speech this week. He proposed giving vouchers to some 300,000 addicts for use at any treatment center, including faith-based groups providing social services.

Such an investment would save lives, restore families, and help the economy. But the president's idea of allowing taxpayers' money to be used for the antiaddiction work of religious groups will first need careful scrutiny by Congress to cut through a thicket of difficult issues.

President Clinton and now Mr. Bush have tiptoed into this constitutionally tricky area of government support for faith-based social services. A 1996 law on welfare reform allowed federal grants to faith-based groups with social programs. Bush's proposals for expanding this government role remain stalled in Congress, leaving Bush to simply change some federal regulations.

This trend is backed up by recent Supreme Court decisions that have opened a door to such government programs as long as they remain neutral in giving money to both religious and nonreligious organizations.

Bush's idea of using vouchers may be a wise step around the legal problems that could arise with direct government grants or contracts to religious groups. Direct aid can raise questions about a church's hiring practices or favoritism in who receives treatment.

A program of vouchers for addiction counseling would have its own problems. Should the government certify who is an expert in drug counseling? What if the only treatment available in an addict's area is run by a religious group?

Such problems aren't insurmountable. Given the successful track record of many religions in regularly helping drug addicts and alcoholics, the government must find its way through these issues. Giving addicts a choice of treatments is a first step for them in taking charge of their lives. If they choose counseling through the services of an organized religious group, taxpayers might be the better for it.

The future of Bush's plan isn't assured. But it's an experiment worth trying, especially if it reaches hearts and reforms lives.

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