Faith-based plan lives, says director

By JASON MOLL, for United Press International  |  May 23, 2002 at 2:29 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is as determined as ever to give religious charities access to federal funds to help alleviate the suffering of America's needy, the office's new director told an overflow crowd at a lecture sponsored by an influential Washington, D.C., think tank.

James Towey, who came to the position four months ago in the wake of the resignation of former director John DiIulio, spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation on May 21.

DiIulio, the office's first director, resigned in August 2001 after a stormy seven-month tenure. His departure came after he found himself caught in the middle of months of controversy about the president's hallmark plan to implement "compassionate conservatism" through giving federal funds to various religiously affiliated charity organizations around the country.

Heritage still supports the president's plan, which has been criticized by conservatives and liberals alike. Some conservatives argue that the plan would compromise religious charities by bringing them under an increasing web of federal regulation and control. Liberals believe the plan would establish too cozy a relationship between religion and government and violate the separation of church and state.

Towey attempted to discount those fears, saying he was not fazed by the ongoing discussion about the constitutionality of faith-based organizations and government working together to remedy societal ills.

"There should be a healthy tension between this First Amendment question and how you balance the free exercise rights of a religious organization with the establishment clause, so that you are not funding preaching," Towey said.

Under the initiative, religious charities can receive money to help convicted prisoners and the homeless, among others, and to support drug treatment initiatives, welfare-to-work programs, and youth mentoring.

Towey said he agrees with the president that religious charities often do things more effectively than secular programs.

"(President George W.) Bush has repeatedly said that government can't love," Towey

said. "Government cannot develop relationships.

"A faith-based organization (has people) working these miserable jobs with low pay and with incredible caseloads. And I think the reason they undertake it, of course, is because of a spiritual imperative in their lives to love their neighbors as themselves. Government is not that capable of dealing with chronic poverty and the roots of it."

Although the Faith-Based Initiative is supposed to prevent federal funds from underwriting religious proselytizing, it also follows a principle established by a clause in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which allows federally funded organizations to maintain their religious qualities, and to make discriminating employment decisions because of their beliefs.

This provision, known as "charitable choice," remains an important factor for proponents of the faith-based program, who believe it would balance the distinct character of religious groups with the secular needs of government.

Charitable choice does not yet have a consensus of support on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives last summer passed a bill that gives broad support for charitable choice, but several senators have introduced their own bill that is very weak in establishing charitable choice.

Towey said that he supports the Senate bill, which provides a host of tax incentives to Americans who make charitable donations, along with incentives for low-income people to work and save. However, Towey said he also supports charitable choice and looks forward to a firmer establishment of that principle.

Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, says the Senate bill left out charitable choice because Sens. Joe Lieberman, (D-Conn.) and Rick Santorum, (R-Pa.) wanted to avoid the divisive civil rights and discrimination issues raised by the House bill.

While Towey acknowledges the debate surrounding the Faith-Based Initiative, he says subsidizing religious charities is nothing new and is not that controversial, in spite of Washington rhetoric.

"In our local communities, where is all the litigation?" he asked. "Where is all the screaming and yelling? You'd think there would be a torrent of litigation if things were as bad as all the critics say. Where is the litigation?"

Kimble Ainslie, an entitlements policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, noted that there has been less discussion of the president's Faith-Based Initiative in recent months, but some of its features remain contentious.

One of the most controversial aspects of the plan, he says, is government regulation being tied to private groups. However, Ainslie says he is not concerned overall with the president's Faith-Based Initiative because it is more of a good gesture than anything else.

"A major part of it can be described as symbolic policy making, and to some extent that's good thing," Ainslie says. "It would be bad if there was more of a robust effort on the president's part (to increase the size and the scope of his plan.)"

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