Faith-Based Fracas: Lieberman Hails Compromise with Bush as the Lord's Work, but Critics Still Won't Say Amen

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For Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a compromise "faith-based" proposal he has negotiated with President George W. Bush is as much about theology as politics.

"I remember when we stood together last year over in Anacostia on the day you announced your desire to have this faith-based initiative, I was proud to support you," Lieberman told Bush at a Feb. 7 White House ceremony to tout the new deal. "I said then, because we were talking in general terms, that the devil -- if I may use that term advisedly -- would be in the details. The details along the way, Congress being what it is, turned out to be quite devilish. But in the end here today, I think we've put the good Lord right into the details."

The agreement Bush reached with Lieberman for a revamped faith-based scheme emphasizes tax incentives for greater donations to charities. The measure, called the "CARE Act of 2002" (Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment), avoids the most controversial features of the president's original plan, the so-called "charitable choice" provisions that raised the ire of civil rights and civil liberties advocates and doomed the initiative in the Senate last year.

At the ceremony to discuss the compromise, Bush and Lieberman sat in the Oval Office to express their shared commitment to the new measure and said they expect it to be far less contentious than the legislation passed by the House last year.

Rather than focus on the divisive elements of the House bill, the CARE Act (S. 1924) stresses incentives for Americans to contribute to charities. Currently, about three-quarters of American taxpayers do not itemize on their tax returns. Under the compromise reached by Lieberman and Bush, those taxpayers would be able to take a deduction for donations to charities. That deduction would be worth up to $400 for individuals and $800 for couples.

In addition, the revamped initiative would devote about $150 million to offer technical assistance to smaller charities, making it easier for the groups to apply for federal grants, as well as provide funding for a "Compassionate Capital Fund" that would develop more public-private charitable partnerships. The over-all price tag for the plan is estimated at about $12 billion.

Noticeable in its absence was "charitable choice" language. Charitable choice originated with former-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) during the drafting of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The concept changed existing law to permit taxpayer-financed social service funding of churches and other "pervasively sectarian" groups without adequate church-state safeguards.

Bush, both as governor of Texas and as president, has supported the charitable choice approach and included it in his original faith-based proposal. But in order to strike a compromise with Lieberman and other Senate mediators, charitable choice had to be taken off the negotiating table.

The announcement of the CARE Act was part of a busy February for the White House on this issue. Just days before, Bush replaced John DiIulio as head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, tapping Jim Towey as the new director. Earlier in the same week, the president announced that the faith-based office will be part of a new White House national service office headed by Bush aide John Bridgeland (see "Healing The Nation's Soul?").

At the White House event to unveil the compromise, Bush struck an optimistic tone.

"This legislation will not only provide a way for government to encourage faith-based programs to exist without breaching the separation of church and state, it will also encourage charitable giving as well," Bush said. "We have an opportunity to capture the compassion of the country, focus it in the right direction."

Bush continues to support the idea that religious groups can, and must, play a part in addressing social needs. A week before unveiling the CARE Act, when introducing Towey, Bush explained that he believes that our society faces "incredibly tough problems," but added, "I have faith that faith will work in solving the problems. …