WASHINGTON -- Seeking to expand the role of religious groups in social programs, President Bush has seized on a politically popular initiative that leaves opponents worried about breaching the wall between church and state.
The centerpiece of Bush's plan, which would allow religious groups to compete for billions of dollars in government grants, is modeled after similar efforts that previously have faced little opposition on Capitol Hill. The proposal also calls for a slew of tax breaks to encourage charitable giving.
But given the chance to involve religious groups in their welfare programs, most states have done little or nothing so far to steer contracts toward churches, synagogues and other religious organizations, proponents say.
Now Bush plans a major expansion of "charitable choice," which has been limited to welfare, drug treatment and community development programs. The proposal Bush was sending to Congress on Tuesday would open all federal grant programs to religious groups.
"Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups," the president said Monday. "Yet, when we see social needs in America, my administration will look first at faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives."
Bush, who was unveiling his legislative plan at a Washington-area school Tuesday, also would allow some 80 million taxpayers who do not itemize their taxes to claim a deduction for contributions to charitable organizations, meaning they wouldn't have to pay taxes on the money they contribute.
In addition, aides said his plan would:
--Create a new credit against state taxes for contributions to poverty-fighting organizations chosen by each state.
--Allow Americans to contribute money from their Individual Retirement Accounts to charities without paying a tax penalty.
--Increase the tax deduction for corporation contributions and limit corporate liability for in-kind donations.
On Monday, Bush signed a pair of executive orders creating a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and counterpart offices in five Cabinet-level departments to promote the new competition. He named John J. DiIulio Jr., a University of Pennsylvania political science professor, to head the White House office.
Under current law, religious groups must create separate organizations that do not promote religion or discriminate in hiring to compete for grants.
So while a Catholic church is free to hire only Catholics for its staff, an affiliated, government-funded homeless shelter at the church may not consider religion when it hires its workers.
Critics complain that by breaking down these rules, Bush's plan amounts to government funding of discrimination.
"I don't want Bob Jones University to be able to take federal dollars for an alcohol treatment program and put out a sign that says no Catholics or Jews need apply here for a federally funded job," Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said in an interview.
But Edwards is one of only a few vocal opponents in Congress, and he predicts the initiative will "fly through the House."
"I hope we can help fine tune it as the jet is flying through," he said.
Civil liberties and civil rights groups plotted strategy to fight it and vowed a court challenge if they lose.
But the centrist Democratic Leadership Council touted its own support for similar faith-based programs, and opponents privately admitted that it's tough to persuade politicians to oppose funding for churches.
Backers say Americans looking for aid will have secular alternatives and that no organization will use tax dollars to preach religion.
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