Feb 07, 2002

A "compromise" version of the "faith-based" initiative endorsed today by President George W. Bush and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) poses constitutional problems, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Earlier this week, White House officials reached an agreement with Senate negotiators on the framework of a new faith-based proposal. This measure, which will be called the "CARE Act of 2002" (Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment), emphasizes tax incentives for greater donations to charities.

The revamped proposal, drafted in conjunction with Lieberman and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), will omit contentious questions over "charitable choice," which had raised the ire of civil rights and civil liberties advocates.

Americans United, which has spearheaded opposition to the president's faith-based initiative, said some of the changes are steps in the right direction, but serious problems remain that need to be addressed.

"While the new proposal wisely avoids many of the divisive legal problems of the president's original plan, it still contains several problematic provisions," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The White House claims this plan will offer equal treatment for all groups, but it actually gives special treatment to religious groups."

Lynn pointed to the so-called "Equal Treatment" section of the legislation, which unfairly shows bias toward religious social service providers.

Lynn noted, for example, that religious groups would be able to receive public funds while displaying unlimited amounts of religious "art, icons, scripture or other symbols." Such displays will make many religious minorities feel like second-class citizens at institutions providing social services with tax dollars.

"It is simply wrong for a publicly funded job training facility to post a banner that reads, 'Only Jesus Saves,'" Lynn said. "If a religious group receives public funds, they should display an American flag, not a crucifix."

Lynn also said that government contractors in many communities are currently required to have governing boards that reflect the diversity of the community. The CARE Act exempts religious groups from these equal opportunity laws, while not affording the same exemption to secular service providers.

"The president's claim about wanting a 'level playing field' rings hollow in light of the details of this proposal," Lynn said.

Lynn said the legislation would find broader support if these measures were not part of the final proposal.

"With constitutional questions lingering, the faith-based initiative still has a giant question mark hanging over it," Lynn concluded. "We'll continue to watch this plan closely in the coming months."

In January 2001, Bush issued an executive order establishing a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Shortly thereafter, his plan to offer public funds to religious groups to provide social services was introduced in the House of Representatives as the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7). That bill, which contained controversial "charitable choice" provisions, passed the House in July after months of bitter partisan conflict, but stalled in the Senate.

Bush has recently made an effort to get his religious proposal back on track. Today's announcement on the compromise measure follows closely on the heels of the president introducing Jim Towey as the new head of the White House faith-based office last Friday.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.