(USA Today, March 5) Throughout U.S. history, faith-based organizations have had an exemplary record of community service. Their work is efficient, lasting and accomplished with an economy of scale the federal government is unable to emulate.

The faith-based initiative proposed by President Bush is an official acknowledgment of the tremendous role these institutions play in society. But it would create some disturbing problems unless it is modified -- as it easily can be.

The genius of faith-based organizations lies in their religious mission. For instance:

  • Teen Challenge achieves a remarkable 80% cure rate for teenage drug addicts because it leads young people to faith in Jesus Christ and then painstakingly instructs them in biblical principals of Christian living.

  • Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries achieves equally startling results with released prison inmates for the same reason: Faith in Christ, plus a network of loving Christian support groups, is what keeps those in its programs out of jail at far higher rates than those who only received secular assistance.

  • Catholic schools provide better educations in many inner cities, not only because of superior pedagogy, but also because of the strong Christian moral teaching and discipline that pervade Catholic schools.

    Here is the problem with government-assisted faith-based charity: If government provides funding to thousands of faith-based institutions but, under a tortured definition of separation of church and state, demands in return that those institutions give up their unique religious activities, then not only the effectiveness of these institutions, but also possibly their very raison d'être may be lost.

    There is a second unsettling problem. Our laws do not let government engage in content discrimination of speech. The same government grants given to Catholics, Protestants and Jews must also be given to the Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology or Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church -- no matter that some may use brainwashing techniques or that the founder of one claims to be the messiah and another that he was Buddha reincarnated.

    Under the proposed faith-based initiative, all must receive taxpayer funds if they provide ''effective'' service to the poor.

    In my mind, this creates an intolerable situation.

    Donations and tax credits
    I propose a modest modification to the Bush plan: Faith-based organizations that want federal assistance could request a screening by the new White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which would look at such objective criteria as their financial integrity, record keeping, supervision and basic accountability. Assuming these organizations were performing approved services for those less fortunate in society, they would be listed in a government registry along with a list of projects the government wishes to support.

    Private individuals and corporations then could use that listing to make donations to the faith-based institutions of their choice. Donors could specify which projects got their money. The charity would be required to segregate these designated funds and be prepared to document the fact that the donated funds were used in the manner specified.

    The government, rather than make direct grants to the faith-based institutions, would offer dollar-for-dollar tax credits (not deductions) to donors who support approved projects.

    In this way, a vast private network of caring citizen volunteers would be able to participate in -- and have a degree of oversight over -- thousands of faith-based initiatives throughout the land.

    The benefits are many: A new swarm of federal regulators would not be required to monitor this program; the government would not be forced to intrude upon the religious activities of worthy charities; and the government would not be placed in the position of directly subsidizing religious practices, which might seem anathema to most Americans.

    I want the Bush faith-based plan to succeed. With these slight modifications, it will succeed. Without them, however, I see trouble down the road.

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