March 30, 2001
By Kenny Byrd
WASHINGTON (ABP)– Pressing forward despite criticism of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers has unveiled the sweeping “Community Solutions Act.” The law would expand funding of religiously oriented social services and allow non-itemizers to deduct charitable giving from their taxable income.
The effort in the House of Representatives comes just days after news that the more controversial “charitable choice” portion of the Bush initiative, which would fund religious ministries with tax dollars, would be stalled in the Senate.
Longtime critics of charitable-choice programs have claimed they violate the separation of church and state. They have been joined recently by voices from the Religious Right raising concerns about unpopular or minority faiths benefiting from tax dollars and the prospect of government regulations accompanying federal funding.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said recently that Senate backers of the Bush initiative would proceed with the tax-incentive portions of the bill, but the charitable-choice provision could be delayed for as long as a year.
Nevertheless, House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts, R-Okla., joined by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, announced March 21 they plan to move forward with legislation that includes the charitable-choice initiative as well.
Hastert said the “best remedy” for drug addiction and other social ills is provided by faith-based organizations. Standing alongside religious and advocacy leaders from groups such as Call to Renewal, Hastert said faith-based programs are more effective than government programs because they “provide that little extra something that made the difference to help people change their lives.”
Hall was the one Democratic sponsor of the bill at the event. In an interview with Associated Baptist Press, Hall urged churches to set up a separate nonprofit 501c3 group to take tax dollars but said the legislation would not require it.
“They’re going to have to separate the money. They can’t use this money for religious instruction, proselytizing,” Hall said. “Anytime you get federal money, it’s always looked at. They will be audited.”
Critics of the plan, including the Baptist Joint Committee and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have long said that the type of regulations Hall discussed would interfere with the religious nature of the social programs and excessively entangle church and state. Other critics, including Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Chet Edwards, D-Texas, say charitable choice will allow tax-funded employment discrimination based on religion.
Houses of worship are exempted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in hiring. The intent of that waiver was so churches could limit hiring to people of their own faith. While the waiver remains in place in the new proposal, Hall acknowledged that lawsuits are likely once churches start accepting tax dollars and continue to discriminate in hiring.
Joining critics from the left of late are members of the Religious Right, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition.
But House supporters are pressing on despite an expected uphill battle in the Senate.
“Charity is a virtue that transcends party lines,” said Watts. “Faith-based and community groups have been quietly feeding the hungry and clothing the poor for years. We ought to promote the good work they do and empower them with resources to reach out to those who need their help,” Watts said.
The bill received one of the GOP leadership’s esteemed top 10 bill numbers — H.R. 7 — to indicate its high priority. Among other provisions, it would provide charitable-giving incentives to enable all Americans to deduct charitable giving on their tax returns. It would also allow for tax-free IRA charitable rollovers; establish liability protection for corporate donors to charities; and expand the charitable deduction to include the donation of food products by non-corporate taxpayers.
Associated Baptist Press. Used with Permission.