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Bush faith initiative meeting roadblocks

Tuesday, March 20, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags: ,

March 20, 2001
By Kenny Byrd

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- Amid growing criticism from the Religious Right, Republican lawmakers are stalling implementation of President Bush's sweeping plan to expand "charitable choice" programs that provide government funding of religiously oriented social ministries.

A key backer of charitable choice, which would make it easier for religious organizations like churches to receive federal funds for social services like drug and alcohol rehabilitation, told the Washington Post the president's faith-based initiative would be broken into two parts.

The more controversial charitable-choice funding mechanism could be delayed for as long as a year, said Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa. The Washington newspaper reported that the White House concurs with the delay, prompting claims of victory from critics who say the plan violates the separation of church and state.

"We've just finished round one, and the Bush team is staggering back to their corner," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

While liberal groups have long opposed charitable choice, unexpected criticism of Bush's plan has come of late from the Religious Right. Broadcaster Pat Robertson and Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land have both been quoted as being skeptical of parts of the proposal.

One conservative lawmaker still backing the president's plan, however, shot back at critics from the Religious Right.

House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts, R-Okla., announced March 14 he is set to introduce legislation that will contain charitable choice. "We ought to encourage these new models and offer faith-based groups the same access to federal grants as other organizations," Watts said in a press release.

At a press conference, Watts unleashed on religious leaders whom he said are "throwing rocks" at the plan, comparing their opposition to churches that abdicated their responsibilities during past civil rights struggles.

Watts said a lot of problems that the country has experienced over the last 40 years could have been circumvented "had the faith community not abdicated their responsibility, and if they would have been involved the way their faith dictated that they should have been involved, i.e. racial issues."

Watts, who is African American, said most people in the faith community "were silent in the '50s and '60s."

"People had water hoses turned loose on them and police dogs turned loose on them because they wanted to sit at a lunch counter and eat a hamburger and drink a cup of coffee," Watts continued. "With the exception of some in the Catholic community … very few in the faith community were active."

"I think the faith community needs to learn from the '50s and '60s … and say that, 'in spite of the fact that we abdicated our biblical responsibilities to help feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless -- although we've abdicated that in many respects -- we've allowed the government to do that,'" he said.

"Don't just be against something, tell us what you're for," Watts admonished, later clarifying in an interview with Associated Baptist Press that he was referring to conservative religious leaders who "sat on the sidelines" during America's struggle for civil rights.

During the briefing, Watts discussed questions that have been raised about "charitable choice."

"I'm not looking to fund a church's faith or their religious activity," he said. "I don't know of any church that runs a faith-based operation through their church, out of their church," he added.

But Watts, who was an original sponsor of similar proposals in the past, seemed unaware of the fact that many houses of worship do run social-service ministries from within the church and without setting up separate entities.

Houses of worship have long been able to set up separate nonprofit groups that can receive tax money to perform social services but cannot proselytize or discriminate in hiring with the money. Charitable choice would allow a house of worship to receive the funds directly without such requirements against hiring only those who share its faith.

But when asked about churches who would want to take the funds and hire only people of like faith, Watts turned to his own hiring practices. "You know people who come into my office and ask to work for me," Watts said, "I don't ask them what their denomination is." He added, "I don't think you can go into these situations assuming that the person doing the hiring is going to be a racist. … That dog just doesn't hunt with me."

Watts also said: "I would be highly concerned if we were funding an organization that says were going to try to make people Baptists. … That is a blatant violation of separation of church and state."

He pointed out that the funding proposal is voluntary. "We're not saying to anyone you have to use federal dollars." He added, "If people have problems with it, they don't have to apply." But he acknowledged that a lot of questions about the plan are yet to be answered and some "firewalls" will be necessary.

While leaders of the Religious Right are just now criticizing the Bush initiative, religious leaders from the left say they have been raising concerns for a long time.

"I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so," said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. "The BJC has been raising many of the concerns that some on the right are only recently discovering."

"Conservatives of all people ought to understand the harmful effect of government regulation on religion," Walker said. "We've said all along that government can't pick bad guys and good buys in matters of religion."

"Pat Robertson's concerns that these funds might go to less popular groups highlights the divisiveness brought about by picking and choosing who gets funding," he said.

The BJC recently joined with the Interfaith Alliance in creating an education guide for 20,000 houses of worship interested in partnering with government agencies. The "Keeping the Faith" guide highlights the perils of government funding of religion.

At a press event to release the guide March 13, leaders addressed the question about members of the Religious Right now jumping on the bandwagon of criticism following Bush's plan.

Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, told reporters that organizations like his have long been raising concerns about problems related to the initiative but have been unheard. But "within a period of days," he added, when leaders of the Religious Right began to complain, there was quick reaction.

"That disturbs me," said Gaddy, an ordained Baptist minister. "It raises question in my mind about the influence of the Religious Right in and on the current administration."
Associated Baptist Press
Used with permission.

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