Evangelical leaders may be disappointed that many of the far-reaching provisions of last year's faith-based legislation passed by the U.S. House are gone from a compromise Senate version introduced February 7. But in the aftermath, they are waxing philosophical.

"Politics is the art of the possible, and HR-7 wasn't possible," says Rich Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president for government affairs. "Does the good outweigh the bad? Probably."

While there may not be overwhelming enthusiasm for the Senate plan—the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act—it has a better likelihood of passage. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) jointly introduced S-1924, which has a wide spectrum of cosponsors, from Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "The bill aims to better harness the enormous potential of charitable organizations to help the federal government solve pressing social problems," Santorum says.

President Bush, who has made compassionate conservatism the center of his social agenda, says the bill will help faith-based groups treating drug addicts, aiding battered spouses, and rehabilitating gang members.

"The administration has done an intelligent job of what is politically possible and finding a consensus of what can be passed," says Barbara Elliott of the Center for Renewal, a Houston nonprofit that connects Christ-centered ministries with available resources.

Prospects for Passage

The Senate bill allows tax deductions of up to $400 (for individuals) or $800 (for couples) for taxpayers who do not itemize their claims. But it removes a proposal to expand "charitable choice" provisions of the 1996 welfare reform law. These provisions would have allowed churches and groups to avoid local laws banning employment discrimination against homosexuals.

In January, Bush named Jim Towey, 45, as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Towey says of the proposal, "If the debate stays on how we address the needs of the poor and how we unleash compassion in the country, we'll be okay." Towey says he hopes Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle puts it on the docket in the near future.

How soon the plan becomes law could depend on the backing of some conservatives and evangelicals. "We need to keep federal officials on notice that hiring protection is ground zero for religious freedom," Cizik says. "It won't be rushed through."

Towey told Christianity Today that Bush doesn't perceive the initiative in a vacuum. "This office isn't a … one-bill wonder," he says. "The president is committed to his compassion agenda."

Article continues below

Faith-based organizations are the only providers of social services in some inner-city areas, Elliott says. "There are quite a number of faith-based groups that work on shoestring budgets, but they are neighborhood healers," she says.

Empowering Ministry

Such mustard-seed ministries will be empowered by the new bill, which contains a compassion capital fund of $150 million. The fund will pay for technical assistance to community-based organizations on topics such as retaining volunteers and writing grant proposals. "It's a rare combination to have a well-defined managerial background and a well-defined spiritual mission," Elliott says. Implementing various provisions of the legislation may cost $12 billion over two years.

The Senate version also adds "equal treatment" language saying that charities with religious symbols, titles, or mission statements cannot be discriminated against when competing with secular counterparts for government funding. "Just because you have a cross on the wall or a Star of David on the letterhead or a board with people of faith, it doesn't mean you're precluded from delivering federal services," Towey says.

But Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says that people obtaining benefits to which they are entitled shouldn't be confronted with religious icons or messages. "This version exempts religious groups from what everyone else must do," Lynn says. "You don't have to bend the Constitution to provide real relief for people."

Towey believes the President's proposal is constitutional and fair-minded. "We'll make it clear that you don't preach and proselytize on Uncle Sam's dollar. The focus should be on the quality of the service, not on the name or the identity of the organization," he says.

"The government can't love," says Towey, who has seen faith-based organizations up close. He served as legislative director for U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon. Towey also was director of Florida's health and rehabilitative services department under Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat.

Towey served as legal counsel for Mother Teresa for 12 years, which led him to become a full-time volunteer at the nun's home for AIDS patients in Washington. In 1996, he founded Aging with Dignity, which promotes compassionate care for the ill elderly. He believes he is up to the new challenge.

Article continues below

"This office exists because there are people who are abused or addicted or homeless," Towey says. "This is not a civil rights office; it's not a religious liberties office. It's an office designed to better serve people."

Related Elsewhere

For more coverage of the faith-based initiative see Yahoo's full coverage on the Bush Administration.

Past Christianity Today articles on the faith-based initiative include:

Court Strips Faith Works of State FundsWisconsin vows to appeal setback of Bush-supported initiative. (Feb. 20, 2002)
Weblog: Bush Backs Senate Faith-Based Initiative BillAllowing folks who don't itemize deductions on their tax returns to deduct for charitable giving is apparently huge. (Feb. 2, 2002)
Implacable Foes Find (Some) Common Ground on Faith-Based InitiativesDiverse working group's recommendations represent the minimum, not the maximum, that is politically possible. (Jan. 30, 2002)
The State of the Faith-Based InitiativeOne year after Bush outlined his plan to let religious social-service groups compete for government funds, little has actually made it through Congress. (Jan. 30, 2002)
Where Does the Faith-Based Initiative Stand?Observers look to Bush support, discussion, and the hiring exemption as keys to Charitable Choice legislation. (Sept. 7, 2001)
House Approves Charitable Choice BillHiring protections for religious organizations stays in the bill, but back-room negotiations may mean they won't stay. (July 27, 2001)
DiIulio Pitches Charitable Choice to Cautious NAE DelegatesMeanwhile, group suggests religious broadcasters reconsider severing ties. (March 21, 2001)
No More ExcusesBush's faith-based initiative should reinvigorate our mission of service. (March 15, 2001)
Charitable Choice Dance BeginsFaith-based organizations cautious but eager for government aid. (March 15, 2001)
Bush's Faith-Based PlansGeorge W. Bush, Texas governor and presidential candidate, has placed government cooperation with faith-based initiatives at the core of his campaign. (Oct. 25, 1999)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.