WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a victory for President Bush, the Republican-controlled House approved legislation Thursday expanding the role of religious charities in federal social programs. Opponents complained vociferously the bill would pre-empt state and local anti-discrimination laws. The 233-198 vote represented a down payment on Bush's campaign pledge to "rally the armies of compassion" to attack the nation's social ills. The bill faces an uncertain future in the Democratic-controlled Senate, although supporters pledged to press for a vote this fall. "No one can love a neighbor as well as a loving neighbor, and we must unleash good people of faith and works in every community in our country," Bush said in a statement issued during his European trip. "By doing so, we can extend the hope and the promise and the opportunity that is at the heart of the American dream to the heart of every child in America." He urged Senate action "to quickly unleash this enormous force for good." House passage was largely along party lines after a debate punctuated by an unusual moment in which one Democrat gently upbraided members of his own party for pushing away people of faith. "Sometimes, we almost ... put out a sign that says, 'You're not welcome in our party,''" said Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio. "Faith heals, faith renews, faith gives the hope that this country needs," said Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss., before passage, which came after a one-day delay prompted by objections from GOP rebels. "Our president has called on us to remove the hindrances ... to the faith-based approach." But Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said her Catholic education "has taught me to oppose discrimination in every form. ... The problem is that today this House will vote to legalize discrimination as we minister to the needs of the poor."
In the waning moments of debate, the bill's supporters turned back a final attempt by Democrats to ban employment discrimination under federal, state or local laws for any organization receiving government funds under the law. The vote was 234-195. That issue led the conservative Family Research Council to claim that the bill was "in danger of being hijacked by homosexual groups." The council said it would abandon its support for the bill if it were changed to defer to state and local laws. In the Senate, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has not pledged to schedule debate before next year. In a reference to the dispute over discrimination, he told reporters during the day, "I can't imagine that we could pass any bill that would tolerate slipping back into a level of tolerance that would be unacceptable in today's society." Religious charities are permitted to receive grants in a small number of federal programs under current law. The legislation would expand the list significantly to areas such as housing, domestic violence and hunger relief. Aid recipients would not be required to attend worship services or religious instruction, and individuals would be offered access to assistance from nonreligious organizations if they desired. The organizations themselves would be permitted to retain religious names, charters and symbols on building walls. In addition, the bill includes a series of tax breaks -- worth $13 billion over the next decade - to encourage charitable giving by individuals and corporations. Taxpayers who do not itemize would be permitted to deduct $25 in donations annually, rising to $100 by the end of the decade.
Constitutional and financial pressures forced supporters of the bill to water it down on its way to the House floor. Concerns about separation of church and state led to changes that would likely prevent funds from reaching some of the religious groups that Bush often cites as examples.Also, the tax breaks shrank from more than $80 billion in Bush's original budget -- so much so that Democrats sniped that most taxpayers would shave less than $4 off their income taxes if they took advantage of the deduction. Some critics complained the bill would violate the constitution's requirement for separation of church and state. But most of the controversy surrounded claims the bill would erode federal protections against discrimination in hiring, and more prominently, pre-empt state and local laws on the subject. Supporters said religious organizations needed to retain their essential character and should be permitted to take religious views into account in hiring. They noted that Congress granted them an exemption from anti-discrimination provisions in a landmark 1964 civil rights law. Critics said the introduction of federal funds dramatically changed the situation. "This bill would allow them (churches) to discriminate with federal funds," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. Several Republicans expressed concern about the pre-emption, causing a decision by the leadership on Wednesday to delay a vote on the bill. In a scripted exchange on the House floor, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, a leading supporter of the bill and a member of the GOP leadership, pledged to address the issue during House-Senate negotiations on a final compromise. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and others who had raised the issue voted in favor of the bill, although he was one of four GOP lawmakers to support the Democratic bid to restore the supremacy of state and local anti-bias laws.
The bill had the support of 217 Republicans, 15 Democrats - many of them Southern conservatives- and one independent. There were 193 Democrats, four Republicans and one independent in opposition.