Bills Boosting Religious-Based Social Services Offered
By LAURA MECKLER
WASHINGTON, March 21 (AP) - President Bush's plan to provide support and money to religious groups is getting rolling on Capitol Hill with little consensus on whether congregations should get greater access to government programs.
A House bill would open 10 new programs to religious groups, allowing them to compete for government money without stripping away their religious character, as Bush has proposed. But a Senate bill leaves this controversial provision, known as ``charitable choice,'' out altogether.
The bills would create tax credits to match the savings of low-income participant and give new tax breaks to encourage charitable giving.
The tax credit for banks, credit unions or community groups would create individual development accounts, which match the savings of low-income participants. The institutions would match up to $500 of an individual's savings and get a tax credit for doing so.
Participants could use the matching funds to finance a home, pay for education or start a small business.
The White House professed no concern that the central element of Bush's plan is being left out of the Senate bill.
``This is an important first step,'' said spokesman Scott McClellan. ``We're pleased this bipartisan group of congressional leaders is moving forward to implement the president's initiative.''
Charitable choice has come under attack from diverse quarters. That includes Christian conservatives who worry that government money will undermine the religious core of these programs and civil libertarians who argue that the program amounts to an unconstitutional government funding of religion.
Opponents also argue that under charitable choice, these religious groups could continue to hire people on the basis of religion, an exemption from federal civil rights law.
``We urge you to continue the 60-year history of banning federally funded religious discrimination,'' the American Civil Liberties Union wrote Tuesday in a letter to members of Congress.
Charitable choice is now available for welfare, drug treatment and community services programs. The House bill, sponsored by Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and Tony Hall, D-Ohio, would extend it to several other domestic programs, making it clear that religious groups are eligible for government money in programs for housing, juvenile justice, community development block grants, job training, child welfare, child care, crime prevention, senior citizen services, domestic violence and hunger relief.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., leaves this provision out. Santorum has said he would introduce it as a separate measure later this spring, giving the White House a chance to respond to the criticism. Lieberman has not promised to back it, though.
Both bills would:
-Allow the 70 percent of tax filers who claim the standard deduction (rather than itemizing their deductions individually) to claim an extra deduction for charitable contributions.
-Allow people to donate money from their individual retirement accounts to charity without paying taxes on the withdrawals.
-Expand the charitable deduction for donation of food to non-corporate taxpayers. This would allow restaurant franchises, for example, to claim a deduction for food donations.
Neither bill includes a Bush proposal to allow states to use their federal welfare money for state tax breaks to encourage charitable giving. Critics worry that this will drain money needed for direct aid to the poor and that it will wind up favoring some charities over others.