Bush Aiming to Revive His Faith-Based Programs

But New Plan May Trouble Social Conservatives

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 28, 2002 (Zenit.org).- President George W. Bush is trying to revive his initiative to give federal aid to religious social-services groups.

This time around, however, he might face opposition from social conservatives. They fear his new plan might not protect religious groups from being forced to hire homosexuals and others with questionable lifestyles.

Bush failed to get the plan approved last year. In a speech this week, he is expected to signal that he has learned some lessons from that failure, the Wall Street Journal reported.

This time, Bush will work with prominent opposition Democrats from the outset. And this time around, he won´t push for allowing religious groups that accept federal aid to discriminate against job applicants whose views or lifestyles they oppose, such as homosexuals. And that is precisely why it might trigger opposition from socially and religiously conservative groups.

Bush believes that religious groups can play a more prominent role in salving the country´s social wounds. Yet last year, his initial approach to the delicate church-and-state issue created a «climate of suspicion and division that made it impossible to pass anything,» says Dan Gerstein, an aide to U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who has been talking with the administration about a compromise.

Now, Bush has made it clear he wants to «work on a truly bipartisan, consensus package,» one that seeks to broaden the bill´s reach to all charities, not just faith-based groups, says the Lieberman aide.

Bush ideally would like to let all religious groups compete for government contracts to administer social programs, such as those for drug addicts and alcoholics, without any change to their faith-based practices. He also would encourage states to create offices for spreading messages of spiritual awareness in their social-services departments.

But in Bush´s first year, that plan for a partnership of government and religious charities appeared to blind him to the political and constitutional realities he faced.

Bush aides admit privately that the president badly miscalculated when he allowed conservative Republicans to carry the legislation forward. With his blessing, they wrote a bill that was too partisan and possibly unconstitutional, these aides acknowledge.

The fatal blow, however, came from the White House. Word leaked that top Bush lieutenants apparently assured the Salvation Army that it wouldn´t be subject to state anti-discrimination laws, in exchange for its lobbying in support of the plan.

Meanwhile, even some conservative Republicans had started raising questions about the constitutionality of Bush´s ideas. And then John DiIulio, a Democrat who headed the president´s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, quit last summer, citing health reasons.

The post remains vacant, but aides say Bush plans to announce DiIulio´s successor in this week´s speech, when he touts his scaled-back version of his proposal for religious groups.

Currently, Bush is backing a plan that Senators Lieberman and Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, are drafting.

The compromise would enable more taxpayers to take a break for charitable contributions, including to churches, mosques or synagogues, as an incentive for more giving. It would allow more religious groups to compete more easily for government contracts.

But beyond that, it would give in to Democratic demands for more spending on government social programs. The latest draft specifies several such programs, including a fund for assisting charities of all types and denominations.

This emerging compromise received a boost earlier this month, when a panel of religious and civil-rights leaders endorsed most of its ideas.

But it is sure to draw controversy, as well — this time from some of Bush´s original allies among GOP social conservatives, the Wall Street Journal said. When the details emerge, according to one source involved in the talks, Republicans will see this faith-based initiative as little more than an expansion of «big government programs.» And House Republicans are gearing up to fight Bush if his plan won´t allow churches to discriminate in hiring.

While current federal law permits churches to consider a person´s religious views in hiring decisions — even when the churches receive federal money — some conservatives want Bush to go further and propose to override state and local anti-discrimination laws.

House GOP aides say party leaders there might even try to sink the president´s initiative if he doesn´t relent.

In a recent letter to Bush, 26 GOP House members said religious groups must be permitted to turn away applicants «whose conduct and lifestyles are inconsistent with their statements of faith and sincerely held religious views.»

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