Faith in Government? ; Debate Heats Up over Plans to Reshape Ties between the State and Religious Groups

Article excerpt

Under Governor Bush's leadership, Texas was more aggressive than any other state in opening the door to faith-based organizations as allowed by the 1996 welfare reform act, enlisting them to help welfare recipients make the transition to the workforce.

As president, Mr. Bush plans to expand this "charitable choice" partnership to virtually all domestic federal programs. His proposals to "rally the armies of compassion" have stirred broad and contentious debate, striking a responsive chord with many Americans but striking a nerve with many others.

Two examples from the Texas experience illustrate why:

Lutheran Services of the South launched a well-received program called Coaching for Successs, in which women of faith act as mentors for single welfare mothers as they deal with the challenges confronting them in their search for work. With this help, surveys show, 80 percent of the clients have gained in self-confidence, and more than 60 percent are still employed or have improved their employment status.

On the other hand, Jobs Partnership of Washington County, a consortium of churches and businesses, offered a course on requirements for success in the workplace (partially funded by the state) that has spurred a lawsuit on constitutional issues. With the Bible as a text, one class each week was devoted to biblical principles applicable to the workplace, and the second to their practical application. In a state survey, one-third of all participants said that they felt pressured to change their religious affiliation.

Many Americans welcome the funding of religious groups as offering a more holistic and effective approach to meeting people's needs, while many others see a threat to religious freedoms and a serious break with constitutional principles.

Certain aspects of charitable choice, insists Marc Stern, a lawyer with American Jewish Congress, are "a wholesale breach of the separation of church and state."

The initiative raises such a thicket of issues that even Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, a strong Bush supporter, mused that the program "could be a real Pandora's box."

The White House expected opposition from liberal and religious- liberty groups, but has been stunned by a rising chorus of reservations voiced by conservatives. The contention has been so great the White House has agreed with key senators to split the proposal in two, introducing a bill on tax changes and delaying the component based on charitable choice for several months to allow for fine-tuning, according to The Washington Post.

The recommended changes to the tax system to boost private giving are the least contentious portion of the president's proposals (see box, right) and have drawn broad backing. They would allow the 80 million Americans who are non-itemizers to deduct contributions, permit withdrawals without penalty from IRA accounts for that purpose, and raise the cap on corporate deductions from 10 to 15 percent of taxable income.

But the debate now percolating across the country highlights several serious concerns about charitable choice, including:

* The funding of "pervasively religious" groups, and worries that this could result in taxpayer funding of a religious message.

* The potential for discrimination against faiths in the funding process (or, from another perspective, funding of controversial, non-mainstream groups).

* Support for discrimination in hiring, by permitting groups to select only those of their own faith; possibly cracking open the door to other forms of discrimination.

* Dangers to religious institutions from entanglement with government ties.

* Concerns that unless overall funding is increased, the plan simply means shifting dollars from some groups to others, rather than addressing unmet needs. …