When the House passed H.R. 7, the bill allowing religious organizations to compete for federal social service funds, many journalists and pundits predicted the legislation would have a rough go of it in the Senate (and rightly so, said several newspaper editorials). But it appears that the obituaries were premature. Bush's faith-based initiative is actually "gaining traction among key Democratic senators," reports Cox News Service. The first key Democrat is Georgia's Zell Miller, who sent a letter to his fellow party members Thursday to fellow Democrats urging them to support legislation. "We cannot equivocate," he wrote. "We cannot abdicate this heretofore-Democratic mandate. We do so at our own peril." (Miller has been a recent ally of Bush, siding with Republicans on the recent tax cut and other measures.) According to Cox, Miller's letter quoted extensively from a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Andrew Young, a former Democratic congressman, mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who now runs a nonprofit organization. "We all know that Al Gore endorsed charitable choice … during the presidential campaign," Young wrote.
In addition, the House has voted eight times on charitable choice provisions that would allow faith-based organizations to apply for various government grants. Fifty-two Democratic members voted for at least six of the eight provisions, and 20 voted for all eight. In fact, charitable choice was passed in 1996 under a Democratic administration with bipartisan support. Then, there were none of the alarmist reactions from various quarters that have accompanied the introduction of this year's legislation. … Are such reactions based on the fact that this year's bill was introduced by a Republican, rather than a Democratic, administration? … I am concerned that the Democrats in Congress, especially those who opposed the initiative even though they supported previous versions of it, now risk the perception that they are practicing partisan politics at the expense of the needy.

The other key Democratic senator pushing for the faith-based initiative is, of course, Joe Lieberman. "Right now, there are a lot of people standing back—people absolutely opposed, others highly skeptical," Lieberman said of the legislation. "So we've got a job to do to bring them in, but I think we can do it." In the meantime, the senator from Connecticut has been trying to work with the White House to make the legislation more enticing to Democrats. That likely means that the section of the House bill overtly exempting federally funded faith-based organizations from local anti-discrimination laws will be deleted from the Senate version. "I mentioned it [to Bush] and he expressed a total openness to consider the removal of that provision in the Senate legislation," Lieberman told reporters last week. Bush was less clear, saying that "We should never undermine the civil rights laws of the United States" (straight talker, that guy). On the plus side, it seems—for now, at least—that the version of the bill Lieberman will craft likely won't have a section explicitly forcing charities to comply with the local laws.

Article continues below

And really, the local level is where the real battle is. The Washington Times and The New York Times very rarely agree on their editorial pages, but this week their reporting on regulation of religious organizations is diametrically opposed. The conservative Washington Times suggests religious organizations are already over-regulated, while the liberal New York Times suggests they're hardly regulated at all.

The Washington Times article focuses on a recent report by the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise that says, "An elitism that pervades both left and right has prevented us from utilizing effective grassroots remedies." Even the 1996 charitable choice legislation hasn't been properly implemented, says the organization's president, Robert L. Woodson Sr. That's because faith-based organizations aren't playing the same game as their secular counterparts. The most common obstacle, The Washington Times reports, "is denial of eligibility because ministry staff lack a university or board credential or membership in a social-worker union."

The New York Times meanwhile, uses the recent case of a Christian boarding school in Missouri that was charged with child abuse for forcing students to shovel manure. Such schools are often exempt from many local laws. "Some states grant exemptions to religious academies or boarding homes; others allow day care centers run by religious groups to operate without licenses," writes New York Times reporter Rick Bragg. "Increasingly, legal experts say, religious organizations have been seeking and winning exemptions from other areas of the law, from land-use regulations to health requirements, like immunization." Unfortunately, the article is set up, in the words of one person quoted in the story, as "a heated battle between children's advocates and religious representatives" rather than as one of religious liberty versus the government's mandate to protect its citizens. And religious organizations are treated as dangerous accidents waiting to happen. "Anybody in Missouri can come in and decide you're a church and open a home for children," Joe Ketterlin, executive director of the Missouri Coalition of Children's Agencies, tells the paper. "Nobody knows who they are or where they are until some fiasco happens."

Article continues below

The local angle is important for another reason. As federal legislation takes the spotlight, at least 15 states "have appointed government liaisons who are brokering new collaborations between clergy members and state social service departments," reports The New York Times's Laurie Goodstein.

Meanwhile, Bush continues his push for the federal faith-based initiative. Elsewhere online, World magazine has an extensive and informative cover story of how H.R. 7 went through the House, and how and why it was changed. Editor Marvin Olasky, who wrote the cover story, follows it up with an editorial where, despite the magazine's caricatured reputation, he actually sees some shades of gray:

In the end a problem of principle just bugs me. H.R. 7 clearly prefers some religious groups (those that don't see worship, teaching, and evangelism as central) over others, and that violates the First Amendment ban on "establishing" one religious perspective as the favorite. Why should theologically liberal groups receive preference while evangelical and orthodox Jewish organizations become second-class citizens? I wish President Bush would fight to put an end to government hostility to all faiths, including those that evangelize. Nevertheless, I still like Mr. Bush, and if I had been in that Capitol conference room where he pleaded for support, it would have been hard to say no. Politicians have it tough.

Related Elsewhere

See our past Weblog updates:
July 30

July 27 | 25 | 24 | 23

July 20 | 19 | 18 | 17 | 16

July 13 | 12 | 11 | 10 | 9

July 6 | 5 | 3 | 2

June 29 | 28 | 27 | 26 | 25

June 22 | 20 | 19 | 18

June 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11

June 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4