July 24, 2001
By Christopher Hedglin
WASHINGTON (ABP) — Debate about government funding of religion and the separation of church and state took center stage on the floor of the House of Representatives July 19 as President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiative passed by a margin of 233-198.
Among other things, the bill would expand “charitable choice,” allowing more tax dollars to fund social services run by pervasively religious organizations, such as churches.
Supporters say such groups are often more effective than secular ones and should not be discriminated against in qualifying for federal funding. Critics say the plan violates church-state separation and will burden religious groups with government regulations that come with tax dollars.
The House approved the bill, titled “The Community Solution Act,” after delaying the vote a day to allow Bush time to lobby moderate GOP lawmakers for support.
Despite H.R. 7’s passage in the House, the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where it faces stiffer opposition.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has signaled that the measure may not be considered before next year and expressed doubts that it would pass in its present form. “I can’t imagine that we could pass any bill that would tolerate slipping back to a level of tolerance that would be unacceptable in today’s society,” Daschle said, according to news reports.
In a press conference following the vote, however, the bill’s author, Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., said he is confident that the faith-based initiative “can overcome any hurdles in the Senate.”
A leading critic of charitable choice commented at another press conference. “It’s a sad day because this absolutely terrible bill passed the House,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “But it’s a good day, because I think that the very large vote that we got against this is a step toward defeating it, and a signal to our friends in the Senate to stiffen their spines a little on this issue.”
Nadler said the bill would allow groups receiving tax dollars to discriminate in hiring, as long as it is for religious reasons.
“If a church group believes that women belong in the kitchen and should not work outside, under this bill they could use federal funds in a federal program and say, ‘We’re not hiring any women,'” he said.
Many church-based charities, because of an exemption in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are permitted to hire only workers from their own faith. Opponents of charitable choice, however, say it is wrong for federal money to be used to discriminate based on religion.
“No American citizen, not one, should have to pass someone else’s religious test to qualify for a federally funded job,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, during the House debate. In his remarks, Edwards noted that he was siding with “over 1,000 religious leaders across America” in his decision to oppose the bill.
Supporters, however, were quick to defend the hiring practices of churches even if they take tax dollars.
“One of the most important charitable-choice principles is the guarantee of institutional autonomy that allows faith-based organizations to select staff on a religious basis,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
A much-hailed provision in an early draft of the bill allowing taxpayers who don’t itemize to deduct donations to charitable organizations and churches all but disappeared in the final version. The House Ways and Means Committee earlier watered down that provision, allowing single itemizers to claim up to $25 in charitable gifts, saving the taxpayer about $4.
After the vote, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt said the tax incentive “is not paid for and is so small it will make almost no difference in charitable giving.”
Gay-rights groups opposed the bill because they fear it would weaken state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., thanked his colleagues who opposed the bill “both as a members of Congress and as a gay man.”
Religious groups have been split over the initiative.
The Traditional Values Coalition supports the plan and issued a press statement saying that “homosexual activists and their allies in Congress are attempting to destroy President Bush’s faith-based initiative.”
“I am outraged that homosexuals are willing to destroy an effort to help low-income families,” said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition.
But other religious leaders joined the opposition to the Bush initiative, citing concerns about the separation of church and state.
“There are people everywhere who oppose … the principle of charitable choice not despite their religious beliefs but precisely because of them,” said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. He said such people support religious liberty and the separation of church and state out of a “high regard” for religion.
Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance issued a statement saying the bill “takes us back to pre-civil rights and pre-First Amendment days.”
“President Bush’s faith-based initiatives and proposed expansion of charitable-choice legislation will compromise the voice of faith and create a social-service system prone to discrimination, coercion and proselytization — all in the name of religion,” said Gaddy, a Baptist minister.
— Kenny Byrd contributed to this story.
Associated Baptist Press. Used with Permission.