ACLU Says Compromise Faith-Based Bill Should Serve as "Lesson for the White House"

April 9, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today called a Senate compromise on legislation to implement parts of President Bush’s faith-based initiative a strong signal to the White House that it should abandon efforts to allow religious groups benefiting from taxpayers’ dollars to discriminate based on religion in their hiring practices.

“After two years of fighting, this compromise is finally consistent with the American values of tolerance, equality under the law and religious freedom,” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.

The bill, called the “Charities, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act,” passed the Senate this afternoon 95 to 5. Reached because Republican supporters of the bill lacked the votes to pass the President’s faith-based initiative, the compromise language simply expands certain tax benefits for both religious and secular charities and increases the Social Service Block Grant. A section that would have granted faith-based organizations special preferences in receiving taxpayer funds was dropped.

Had the controversial section remained in the legislation, chief supporter Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) reportedly anticipated numerous Democratic amendments designed to protect civil rights that would have passed. Santorum also pledged at a news conference last week to oppose any attempt by the House Republican leadership to return the discrimination section back into the bill during final negotiations.

The compromise Charities, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, or CARE, now consists of a series of tax breaks to spur charitable giving, $1.4 billion in social service grants to the states and additional funds for technical assistance to small religious groups that lack the resources to compete for federal funding.

The compromise is also particularly welcome, the ACLU said, given the push by the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to further its agenda in the federal agencies. These efforts have ranged from an executive order to a slew of proposed rules allowing government-funded religious groups to discriminate in hiring.

In January, the New York Times reported on an obscure proposed rule change at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that would allow religious groups to subsidize the construction of houses of worship with taxpayer money. Worse, the ACLU said, the tax dollars would be funneled from another HUD program that helps house the homeless, AIDS patients and single parent families.

“The President needs to take this compromise as a sign that there are better ways to work on his faith-based initiative,” Anders said. “Instead of pushing divisive measures that will not pass muster in the courts or even among his own partisans on the Hill, today’s vote demonstrates that he has the chance to build wide bipartisan support for getting real help to needy Americans.”

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