New Senate Majority Dims Faith-Based Hopes

The Christian Century, June 20, 2001 | Go to article overview

New Senate Majority Dims Faith-Based Hopes


Democrats had hardly assumed control of the U.S. Senate in the first week of June before they promised increased scrutiny of, and an uphill battle about, President Bush's faith-based initiatives, thus forcing Republicans and the White House to offer concessions to the controversial plan to funnel government money to religious charities.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, launched the first Senate hearings on the bill June 6 with concerns that Bush's desire to expand the "charitable choice" program would lead to government "meddling" with religion. "There is an old saying about a certain road that is paved with good intentions," Leahy said. "Charitable choice may be well intentioned, but I have grave concerns about where it may lead us."

The other senator from Vermont, James M. Jeffords, broke from the Republican Party days earlier by proclaiming himself an independent--a move that gave the Democratic Party a 50-49 edge in the Senate.

With the Senate now in Democratic hands, Bush's plan faces stiff opposition from key Democrats such as Leahy who now control the flow of legislation. House Republicans promise a vote on their bill by Labor Day, but momentum has waned on their side as well.

Under the Bush plan, religious groups would be able to apply for federal money for social programs, from soup kitchens to after-school tutoring. The plan has drawn vocal opposition from both left and right, who worry that it could jeopardize the separation of church and state and dilute the message of religious groups. Senator Joe Biden (D., Del.) also expressed reservations: "They say if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and I'm not sure we're not going to break something that's already fixed."

In testimony prepared for the opening hearing, the Anti-Defamation League called the program "constitutionally suspect and bad public policy." But another Jewish group, the Orthodox Union, warned that the faith-based plan is a good program that has become a "political Rorschach test, with some interest groups projecting their worst fears upon it."

Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the debate over the newest version of charitable choice programs has been partisan in tone for the first time. …

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