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Vote Likely for Faith Initiative

October 19, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate is prepared to consider a scaled-down version of President Bush's "faith-based initiative," and a key House leader has said he will go along, meaning a bill could reach the president's desk this year.

But Senate supporters said they won't go forward unless they know they can defeat a series of amendments that sponsors say are aimed at strengthening the separation between church and state.

As conceived, the Bush initiative would have opened a dozen new social programs to religious groups, which supporters say are often best suited to offer help. But after a bitterly partisan debate in the House, Senate leaders scaled back the legislation.

The Senate bill now offers tax breaks to encourage charitable giving and makes it clear that religious groups cannot be excluded from government contracts for superficial reasons, such as a religious name or religious symbols on display.

The chief House sponsor, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), said last week he would accept the scaled-back version and support taking it to the House floor for a vote if it passed the Senate first.

"Half a loaf is better than going hungry," Watts said. "Underserved communities shouldn't have to wait any longer."

Still, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said he wouldn't allow the bill to advance without a debate over the religious nature of social services that are paid for with tax dollars. One of his amendments would bar proselytization with government money; another would prohibit groups that get tax dollars from discriminating against beneficiaries or employees of other religions.

"There are fundamental constitutional values, and they have to be considered," Reed said in an interview.

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