The House of Representatives in September passed legislation designed to boost charitable giving, modestly advancing President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative in Congress.
The bill is a far cry from what Bush originally wanted. It does not directly allocate taxpayer funds to religious groups, focusing instead on a variety of tax breaks that backers hope will encourage Americans to give more to religious and other charities.
A major provision of the bill allows taxpayers who do not itemize to fully deduct more of the money they give to charities. Congressional supporters exdpect houses of worship to be the major beneficiaries of this change. Another provision of the bill encourages businesses to donate more to religious groups and charities.
The legislation passed on a 408-13 vote Sept. 17. A House-Senate conference committee must now meet to reconcile the House bill with the Senate version, which is slightly different.
Advocates of church-state separation, which oppose the faith-based initiative, noted that the House bill does not contain controversial provisions that Bush and his supporters had originally proposed. But they said the battle is far from over.
Congressional supporters of the faith-based approach continue to add the concept to other social service bills. Most recently, they have been insisting that religious groups be allowed to take taxpayer money while retaining the right to discriminate in hiring.
The House Committee on Education and Workforce on Oct. 1 debated a series of changes to the Community Services Block Grant program, which distributes federal aid to community-based programs in the states. House Republicans have insisted that religious groups that get this aid should not have to drop discriminatory hiring practices.
Four Democratic members of the House, Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Robert Andrews (N.J.) and Donald Payne (N.J.) offered two amendments that would forbid groups receiving the aid from discriminating on the basis of religion when hiring staff or providing services.
The second amendment was adopted, but the first failed after a heated debate. During the discussion, Payne charged that allowing religiously based discrimination was a step backwards.
"We're dropping the clock back to the 1800s," he said. "For some reason, we're seeing a reemergence of religion as part of government. It's seeping into everything we do. The chilling effect to me is dropping back to a time when we had religious and racial intolerance."
Andrews challenged the Republicans, asking, "Does this mean that an Episcopalian organization that receives federal money for social programs can chose not to hire someone for that program who's Roman Catholic?"
When no one answered, he added, "No answer? Well, I think it does say that, and there's something dreadfully wrong about that. It's wrong to do that with my money. It's wrong to do that with taxpayers' money."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) finally responded, telling Andrews, "Churches have the right to hire whomever they want. So the answer to that would be yes."