Faith-Based Initiatives Quietly Lunge Forward ; Proposals on Drug-Program Funding and Religious Buildings Raise Civil Libertarians' Ire

Article excerpt

When the Senate failed last year to act on President Bush's signature "faith-based initiative," the White House did not give up.

Bit by bit, through executive orders and changes in agency regulations, the administration has been carrying out the initiative anyway. Its goal is to allow religious groups to compete more easily for federal funds to address under-served social needs, such as helping the homeless and the drug-addicted. Seven government departments now have faith-based offices, which steer religious groups toward billions of dollars in grant money.

Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee was set to approve legislation that would allow people who do not itemize on their taxes to deduct a portion of their charitable giving, a move that would benefit religious organizations. But among the president's faith-based plans, this item isn't especially controversial.

The most controversial proposal to date has come out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development: HUD has proposed a change in its rules to allow taxpayer money to be used for the construction, acquisition, or rehabilitation of houses of worship. Under the plan, the government would subsidize those portions of a building that would be used for social services, such as food pantries, counseling, or homeless shelters.

Until now, HUD has been the only federal agency that explicitly forbade grants to religious groups. If the new rule is approved, after the public comment period ends in mid-March, that restriction would no longer apply.

Civil liberties groups have promised legal action if the plan goes into effect, arguing that it violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Even some supporters of the administration's overall faith-based initiative believe the HUD plan goes too far.

"It's as close to the church-state line as I think the administration has gotten," says Joe Loconte, a religion fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "When government money goes directly to houses of worship, it will invite unnecessary government intrusion. My concern is for the health and independence of religious institutions."

He and others support an alternative: the use of vouchers. A homeless person could receive a voucher at a government-run shelter and use it at a religious one. That would remove the government from the construction of religious buildings and insulate HUD from issues of church-state separation. Already, Bush in his State of the Union address proposed a $600 million voucher program that would allow drug addicts to choose between religious and secular programs. …