WASHINGTON (RNS) Five of the nation's largest charitable groups have issued a strong endorsement of a Senate compromise that would revive the least controversial elements of President Bush's "faith-based initiative."

In a joint Feb. 22 letter to the bill's sponsors, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the five social service agencies said the bill "will strengthen the ability of faith-based and community groups to serve low-income families, while also recognizing the responsibility of the government in helping to care for the most vulnerable in our society."

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

The Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act would allow religious groups to apply for government funding, expand tax incentives for charitable 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 to skirt anti-discrimination laws and discriminate in hiring. House supporters vow to push for those measures when negotiators meet to iron out differences if the Senate passes the Lieberman-Santorum bill.

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

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

"Reports from social service agencies indicate that donations are not keeping pace with need," Hehir and McCarrick wrote. "In this time of economic uncertainty, the partnership between the federal government and private charities is even more critical."

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