Faith-Based Plan Passes House despite Concerns about Discrimination, Preemption of Local Laws

Article excerpt

Overcoming expectations of defeat, the Bush Administration's faith-based fund passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 233 to 198 last Thursday. Just one day earlier, a group of Republican moderates led by Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) raised objections to the bill's preemption of state and local government discrimination laws, forcing the GOFs leaders to pull the bill.

H.R. 7, the Community Solutions Act, would expand faith-based organizations' opportunity to obtain government money for hunger relief programs, domestic violence and a host of other social services programs. This bill is distinct from its 1996 predecessor found in the charitable choice provision in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Act because it no longer requires faith-based organizations to create independent, tax-exempt groups to run federally funded programs.

H.R. 7 also contains provisions that encourage charitable giving by taxpayers who do not itemize their taxes. The Bush Administration's original proposal of $90 billion in tax breaks for charitable giving was reduced to $13 billion by the House Ways and Means Committee. It would allow non-itemizing taxpayers to deduct as much as $25 in donations initially; and it would rise to $100 in 10 years.

Some conservative religious groups and civil libertarians have raised concerns about government entanglement in religion, while civil rights groups complain that the bill facilitates discrimination with the use of federal funds.

NLC's Lobbying Efforts

NLC lobbied the House members regarding its concerns with H.R. 7, which fall into three general areas: the threat of new litigation; the preemption of local laws and imposition of unfunded federal mandates; and the commingling of funds. In a July 17 letter to the House of Representatives, NLC acknowledged the improvement made to H.R. 7 when the House Judiciary Committee adopted language limiting civil action to injunctive relief. NLC noted, however, that requiring local governments to provide alternative programs to objecting individuals without the benefit of additional federal funds is "an unfunded mandate." NLC also expressed concerns regarding the commingling of funds.

The Preemption of Local Laws

NLC also lobbied in support of the motion to recommit H.R. 7, offered by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, to strike language in the bill that preempts state and local government discrimination laws. The section of the bill in question states that a religious group "shall have the right to maintain its autonomy from federal, state, and local government, including such organization's control over the definition, development, practice and expression of its religious beliefs." The motion was defeated by a vote of 195 to 234. …