Senate, House mull charitable-choice debate

Friday, June 8, 2001
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., raised questions about charitable choice.

When Agudath Israel, a 79-year-old movement of Orthodox Jewish followers, decided to expand its work into social service about 30 years ago, it did so to perform “tzedakah,” or righteous acts of charity.

These services ranged from mentoring at-risk youth, employment training and visitation programs for the sick and elderly. And at various times, Agudath Israel enjoyed the support of government dollars in its mission, said David Zwiebel, the group’s general counsel.

But Zwiebel said he’s not so bold as to suggest Agudath Israel’s social-service recipients ever mirrored society at large or to say its staff completely set aside faith to administer services sponsored by government money.

In reality, the group administers services primarily to Orthodox Jews, and its staff is composed solely of people who uphold Judaic principles.

As President Bush talks about expanding opportunities for religious groups and services to win federal grant money, Zwiebel said his group certainly would be a worthwhile contender. But Zwiebel told the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 6 that his group wouldn’t take the money at the expense of its members’ beliefs.

“To insist that a religious charity adopt secular nondiscrimination standards … or to insist that religious symbols be removed from a faith-based provider’s facilities, is simply a polite way to say that religious charities should not be eligible to receive funds,” Zwiebel said. “No self-respecting religious organization would ever trade in its sacred tenets for a pot of government lentils.”

The government, for years, has bolstered faith-based groups with federal program dollars and with little opposition. But Bush proposes expanding charitable choice by opening all federal grant programs to religious groups.

Just this week, Bush touted his plan during a Habitat for Humanity construction project in Tampa, Fla.

“Our government should not fear working side by side with faith-based organizations,” he said. “Quite the opposite, we ought to fund faith-based organizations so that they can do their duty in love and compassion.”

Both the Senate and House judiciary committees this week held hearings on these charitable-choice programs, launching an official debate on whether Bush’s faith-based initiative offends the First Amendment’s religious clauses.

Current law requires religious groups to form separate organizations that do not promote religion or discriminate in hiring before competing for such grants. So while a church might restrict hiring for its office staff, it would not be allowed to do so if it operated a government-funded program.

Critics of Bush’s proposal argue that it would break down these rules and threaten the wall separating church and state. Several civil-liberty groups warn that funding religious groups with government dollars would lead to a rash of First Amendment litigation.

The Bush administration contends his program clarifies current laws governing charitable choice by explaining that government entities cannot exclude organizations from the grant process solely because of their faith-based character.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that he currently sponsors S.304, the Drug Abuse Education, Prevention and Treatment Act of 2001, that includes a charitable-choice provision. But, Leahy said, he has concerns about the inclusion of that provision.

He referred to a letter submitted to the committee from 969 religious leaders who fear “the flow of government dollars and the accountability for how those funds are used will inevitably undermine the independence and integrity of houses of worship.”

Leahy said he hoped the hearings would clarify questions about charitable choice.

But if the hearings revealed anything, they showed that positions on the issue can’t be drawn along religious or political lines.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas Law School professor who represented parents and students challenging prayers before football games, cited himself as a supporter of charitable-choice initiatives. He told House members that buying and soliciting services without regard to religion minimizes government’s influence.

“If government buys without regard to religion, no one has to change their religious behavior to do business with the government,” Laycock said yesterday. “Despite the conventional wisdom of many separationists, funding everyone equally separates private religious choice from government influence more effectively than funding only secular providers.”

Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, agreed, stressing that the establishment clause requires neutrality toward religion, not hostility.

“Government must be faith blind, if you will,” Diament said to the Senate committee. “Government ought to establish grant criteria that have nothing to do with whether prospective grantees are religious or secular, but simply whether they have the capacity to perform the service.”

But the CATO Institute, in testimony filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee, said government dollars “come with strings attached” and warned that charities could find themselves inundated with federal paperwork.

“Officials of faith-based charities may end up spending more time reading the Federal Register than the Bible,” the group wrote.

But Zwiebel of Agudath Israel said that as long as the government money is not used for religious purposes or to compel recipients to participate in religious activities, faith-based service providers must not be excluded.

“When government enlists faith-based groups like ours to help address urgent social needs, it enlists groups that approach this task with a special dedication and devotion that can make a tangible difference in the quality of the service they provide,” he said. “It would be an unfortunate loss for our caring society were that extra ingredient of motivation, enthusiasm and effectiveness excluded from the government-funded service mix.”

Tags: , ,