WASHINGTON (RNS) Five of the nation's largest charitable groups haveissued a strong endorsement of a Senate compromise that would revive theleast controversial elements of President Bush's "faith-basedinitiative."

In a joint Feb. 22 letter to the bill's sponsors, Sens. JosephLieberman, D-Conn., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the five social serviceagencies said the bill "will strengthen the ability of faith-based andcommunity groups to serve low-income families, while also recognizingthe responsibility of the government in helping to care for the mostvulnerable in our society."

The letter was signed by executives from Catholic Charities USA,Volunteers of America, Inc., Lutheran Services in America, the SalvationArmy and United Jewish Communities -- an umbrella group representing 189local Jewish federations.

The Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act would allow religiousgroups to apply for government funding, expand tax incentives forcharitable giving and give faith-based groups "technical assistance"with tips on grant writing and setting up tax-exempt structures.

The bill, however, does not include provisions supported by Bush,and passed last year by the House, which would allow religious groups toskirt anti-discrimination laws and discriminate in hiring. Housesupporters vow to push for those measures when negotiators meet to ironout differences if the Senate passes the Lieberman-Santorum bill.

Together, the five groups represent the lion's share of faith-basedcharity in the United States. The executives said the bill "includesstraightforward, common sense provisions to ensure that qualifiedfaith-based organizations can compete for federal funds."

In a separate letter, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, president of CatholicCharities USA, and Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told Liebermanhe has the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. McCarrickis chairman of the bishops' domestic policy committee.

"Reports from social service agencies indicate that donations arenot keeping pace with need," Hehir and McCarrick wrote. "In this time ofeconomic uncertainty, the partnership between the federal government andprivate charities is even more critical."