Perhaps no initiative is more important to conservative Republicans than to give evangelical religious organizations access to the billions of dollars in federal social programs, which they say they have been denied for decades. Jim Towey, the director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is quoted in the conservative magazine World as saying that "faith-based communities have been stiff armed by the federal government for years. They've been excluded, discriminated against."
For the president, too, the faith-based initiative took a personal dimension, and when campaigning for it, he often mentioned that it was religion that helped him stop drinking and refocus his life when he was in his 40s.
Bush made the proposals a first order of business when he took office nearly two years ago. But when the administration had to agree to limit federal funds to religious groups for their secular services alone, the draft law ended up being criticized by conservatives as well as liberals.
The outcry by Bush's core Republican constituency was so great in the summer of 2001, it was said to have caused the sudden departure from the White House of John DiIulio, director of the faith-based office.
DiIulio was a widely respected conservative social scientist. Marvin Olasky writing in the Nov. 23 edition of World said under DiIulio, "the attempt to solicit liberal allies appeared to drive the whole process" and as a result "conservative Christian groups did not fight to keep it alive." He had lambasted DiIulio in an earlier article for having been an adviser to former Vice President Al Gore.
Now comes Bush with a new head of the faith-based office: Towey, a Catholic, also with bipartisan credentials (he once worked for the Democratic Governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles) and people often note that he was tutored by the late Mother Teresa -- one of the most renowned religious workers for the poor.
Bush won an extraordinary increase in House seats for a sitting president in a mid-term election and recaptured the Senate. Earlier this week, Sen. Rick Santorum, Pa., who is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said the president's key conservative issues will be pushed next year with the faith-based initiative first among many. Senate Majority leader Trent Lott said ideas like giving money to churches to help families are "considered bad on the two coasts... but where the meat is in the sandwich, the rest of America, these are pretty mainstream ideas."
Last year, Santorum and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman won committee approval for what they called a compromise bill, the Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (C.A.R.E.) Act.
But opponents like Rep. Bobby Scott, the Newport Virginia Democrat who led the fight against the president's plans in the House, claims that the neither the president nor the White House will give the public "a straight answer" to what he calls fundamental questions:
"Can you directly fund a church, write a government check to the First Baptist Church of Jefferson Park?"
"Can you use government funds to proselytize and press your faith or beliefs on others?"
"Can you discriminate in hiring?"
Scott argues that the bills presented in both the House and the Senate are "stealth" measures, where the administration has gone to great lengths to hide its real intentions. He and others suggest that the ultimate goal of Bush is to allow religious organizations to apply and directly receive government grants -- which they say would violate the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free practice thereof."
They argue giving the money directly to a church or religious group would effectively be supporting their establishment over others. Under present law, religious groups who perform social services usually create a tax-free foundation, a "501C3" program named after the section of the tax code which requires monies be used solely for the social service.
Scott and others believe that unless controlled, funds will be given to religious groups that are most favorable to the administration, not the most qualified. "If the Black Muslims had the best prison release program," government cash would still go to a white, accepted group like former Nixon-aide Chuck Colson's prison charity, Scott charges.
At present, religious groups cannot use the funds they get to provide social services to exhort people to join their religion. They must offer their services to any person of any faith, and the person needing the services must not be made to listen to any religious message in order to receive it.
Hiring too was a major issue in last year's debate. Many evangelical religious groups want the right to refuse employment even in non-religious jobs to homosexuals, and others have tried to limit employment to their own co-religionists.
A recent lawsuit in Georgia may the put the issue of discrimination in hiring to the test. According to an account in the New York Times, Alan M. Yorker, who said he was qualified to be a psychologist therapist with degrees from Columbia University, Georgia State and Emory was refused a job at Methodist children's home because he was Jewish. The home, The Times reported, receives about 40 percent of its income from the federal government. Under Georgia law, it is illegal to discriminate in this employment and Yorker is suing.
Among the original faith-based proposals was one in both houses that would protect faith-based organizations from these lawsuits.
At a Rockefeller Foundation panel several weeks ago, Towey seemed to dismiss these issues as a "hysterical response" and complained as others have that the Senate bill was stopped by a parliamentary trick of two senators who put a hold on it. One of those senators, Richard Durbin, D-Ill., echoed Scott's criticism -- the bill and these issues had never been heard in open hearing.
Scott believes that when Americans find out what these bills say, the support for them will melt away. He claims they are the "ugliest" pieces of legislation he recalls in public life.