After days of argument, debate, and contention, we are finally prepared to issue our opinion: We approve of charitable donations. Some may question our stance, but we stand by it. Charitable donations are okay by us. This is about as bold as a group of 33 national leaders could be in mid-January as they tried to agree on how the government could help faith-based organizations serve the needy.

The participants were not all known for building consensus and are rarely on the same side of any church-state issue. Representatives came from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Southern Baptist Convention, People for the American Way, Teen Challenge, the Freedom Forum, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Everyone had veto power—unanimity, not majority, ruled the day.

Out of the meeting came several recommendations, none terribly remarkable. The largest governmental item was allowing deductions for charitable givers who do not itemize their tax returns. It's a good idea but hardly the stuff of "mobilizing the armies of compassion."

Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action and one of the 33 participants, pointed out that the Senate requires only a majority vote—not the unanimity required by the group. "Therefore our recommendations represent the minimum, not the maximum, that is politically possible," Sider wrote. "It is simply nonsense to suggest that the minimal, unanimous recommendations of this exceedingly diverse group represent all that Senators [Rick] Santorum and [Joseph] Lieberman can persuade a majority to pass."

Unfortunately, the Senate wasn't willing to push any harder. The Santorum-Lieberman bill dropped not only the House bill's hiring protections for religious groups, but also any hope of Charitable Choice expansion. That was the meat of Bush's faith-based initiative, but now the President seems content to claim a victory for legislation that looks very little like what he proposed little more than a year ago.

"This may be as far as the faith-based initiative can go without forcing many Americans into surrendering precious constitutional or religious values," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jane Eisner. She's wrong. In fact, Americans will surrender their constitutional values if nobody acts to expand Charitable Choice.

An August 2000 White House report chronicled areas where religious organizations were denied funding despite Charitable Choice provisions in the 1996 welfare reform laws. How much worse will it be if everyone thinks Charitable Choice was defeated in 2002?

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Denying government grants to faith-based organizations simply because of their religious character violates the First Amendment. And denying these organizations their right to use religious beliefs as a criterion when hiring is both unconstitutional and intolerant. (We nonetheless encourage religious organizations, should this pass, to be gracious and generous in most hiring decisions that do not directly involve teaching doctrine or promoting religiously motivated values. Not every volunteer or employee needs to understand every detail of an organization's doctrinal stances.)

By the time this issue of CT is released, the Lieberman-Santorum bill may still be in the Senate, or it may be in conference committee. In any case, we urge those who truly want to fight social ills to empower religious groups to work as religious groups. Allowing direct government funding of religious organizations and allowing them to protect their religious identity is the difference between a good bill and a bad bill. It is the difference between equal access and anti-religious bigotry. It is the difference between significantly helping the poor and merely spouting warm, happy platitudes.

Related Elsewhere

In an online exclusive, Ronald J. Sider wrote in "Implacable Foes Find (Some) Common Ground on Faith-Based Initiatives" that the diverse working group's recommendations represented the minimum, not the maximum, that was politically possible for Charitable Choice.

The White House's "Unlevel Playing Field" report chronicled areas where religious organizations were denied funding despite 1996 provisions.

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

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)
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)
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Weblog: Charitable Choice Makes It Out of Committee, But Is It Too Compromised?The bad news is that the legislation isn't nearly what was promised. (June 29, 2001)
Weblog: Report Finds "Widespread Bias" In Funding of Faith-Based GroupsMeanwhile, John DiIulio steps down. (August, 17, 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)

Recent news articles on Bush's faith-based initiative include:

Group Cites Bush Charity Plan Flaws— Associated Press (Feb. 20, 2002)
Accord Reached on Charity Aid Bill After Bush Gives in on HiringThe New York Times (Feb. 8, 2002)
Bush Endorses Compromise In Senate on Aid to CharitiesThe Washington Post (Feb. 8, 2002)
Deal Reached on Charitable Giving — Associated Press (Feb. 7, 2002)
Charity Bill Compromise Is ReachedThe Washington Post (Feb. 6, 2002)
White House and Senate Agree on Church CharitiesThe New York Times (Feb. 6, 2002)
Senators Agree on 'Faith' Initiative — Reuters (Feb. 6, 2002)
New Director for Faith-Based OfficeThe Washington Post (Feb. 1, 2002)

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