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House Passes Faith-Based Charity Plan

Congress: In a victory for Bush, bill giving religious groups more access to federal social funds is approved after GOP moderates' fears are defused. Opposition is likely in the Senate.

July 20, 2001|JONATHAN PETERSON and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Faced with the possible defeat of one of President Bush's signature issues, House leaders beat back a revolt among Republican moderates Thursday and gained approval for a plan to broaden the role of religious charities in providing the nation's social services.

The 233-198 vote in favor of the faith-based initiative came after an intense lobbying campaign by the White House and leading Republicans, who scrambled to defuse concerns that the bill allows religious charities to discriminate in employment. It appears to face stiffer opposition in the Senate.

The bill would allow religious groups to compete for a growing share of federal contracts in housing, domestic violence and hunger relief, and other services. They would not be permitted to mix social services with worship or proselytization, but they could retain some religious flavor in the atmosphere, such as symbols on the walls.

"This bill is not about church. It's not about state. Rather, it's about serving the poor and needy," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference and a leading proponent of the measure. "It is a plan to help the least of our brethren."

Yet opponents cautioned that the measure would jeopardize the long-standing division between church and state, open the door to job discrimination and jeopardize the independence of religious institutions.

"The wall between church and state must be solid. It must be strong," declared Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). "It has guided us for 200 years. It must not be breached for any reason."

The tally closely followed party lines, reflecting the fierce, last-minute effort of GOP leaders to stave off an embarrassing defeat. Ultimately, just four Republicans opposed their own leadership. Members of the California delegation also voted with their party, with the exception of Gary A. Condit of Ceres, who was one of just 15 House Democrats to support the bill.

"Faith heals, faith renews, faith gives the hope that this country needs," said Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering (R-Miss.) shortly before the vote. "Our president has called on us to remove the hindrances . . . to the faith-based approach."

In a statement released Thursday by White House officials in London, President Bush called the House vote "a victory for progress and compassion" and urged the Senate "to join us to provide help and hope to those who so urgently need it."

Although Bush and other advocates were delighted with their victory, a hot debate highlighted the deep divisions over the proposal and underscored a sense that its final passage by Congress is far from certain. While many lawmakers believe that faith-based groups have something to offer, sharp differences exist over what such a plan should look like.

Indeed, there was division on the matter even among House Republicans. On Wednesday, a revolt by party moderates over the job discrimination provisions threatened to derail the faith-based initiative, forcing GOP leaders to postpone the vote for a day.

And in the Senate, where opposition to the measure appears to be stronger, Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has refused to commit to scheduling debate on the issue before next year.

On Thursday, Daschle expressed strong reservations about aspects of the proposal, notably the right of faith-based organizations to discriminate in employment. "I can't imagine that we could pass any bill that would tolerate slipping back into a level of tolerance that would be unacceptable in today's society," he told reporters.

In addition to making it easier for faith-based charities to compete for government contracts, the bill includes $13.3 billion in tax incentives--down from the $91 billion that Bush sought--to encourage charitable giving by individuals and corporations.

Taxpayers who do not itemize would be able to claim a deduction for charitable donations, an amount scheduled to rise gradually from $25 to $100.

But the central area of dispute has been job discrimination on the basis of religion--a right held by churches under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Supporters of the bill argued that it was important for religious organizations to retain such a right because it is a crucial way of preserving a religious group's character.

Wiping out such protections would amount to "an atomic bomb for faith-based organizations," argued Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). "Churches should be allowed to compete for federal social services funds and remain churches while doing so."

But critics were dismayed that the right to discriminate would be preserved by the new legislation, warning that the measure would override antidiscrimination laws passed by at least 12 states and 100 localities.

"We thought this issue was settled in our society," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). Authorizing job discrimination by employers getting public tax dollars, he added, "is very new and very, very wrong."

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