WASHINGTON -- Conceding they don't have enough support, congressional sponsors of President Bush's faith-based initiative have given up on legislation that would make it easier for churches and religious groups to get government grants.
They had tried and failed to get the Senate to approve a watered-down version of the Bush initiative. Instead, their bill would simply provide tax breaks for donations to charities. It also offers $1.3 billion more for the Social Services Block Grant, a favorite of Democrats.
"I would have liked to have gotten the whole enchilada, but in the United States Senate this year, you're lucky to get anything, and I'll take anything," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said Thursday. "We just thought it was a great trade-off."
Santorum said the Bush administration has succeeded in rewriting government regulations to open programs to religious groups, making legislation less urgent. He also said the tax provisions would aid charities, including many that are religious.
Santorum said House Republicans had agreed to go along with the scaled-back bill -- a remarkable shift since the legislative push began two years ago.
The head of the White House faith-based office pledged to continue the fight.
"This is really more of a legislative strategy issue -- what can you do now versus what can you do later," Jim Towey said in an interview. "The president remains committed to ending discrimination against faith-based groups."
He added that the administration would continue to try to open programs to religious groups individually as they are debated in Congress. "There are going to be debates this year on faith-based (issues). You can set your watch on that," Towey said.
While the administration has tried to implement much of its faith-based agenda through regulations, those efforts might not hold up to any court challenges as well as a law would. Further, the regulatory changes are sporadic across federal programs, whereas the initial Bush-backed bill covered a dozen programs.
The initiative, at the center of Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda, met stiff opposition from the start.
Backers argued that people looking for social services should be able to choose religious providers if they want to. Opponents worried about discrimination against people based on religion and feared the wall between church and state was crumbling.
A divided House approved Bush-backed legislation opening a dozen new social programs to religious groups. It allowed these groups to hire or fire based on their religion, and allowed them to skirt state anti-discrimination laws.
The bill was strongly opposed by civil rights groups and others, and when it got to the Senate, sponsors Santorum and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn, scaled it back.
Their bill initially offered tax breaks and made it clear that religious groups may not be excluded from government contracts for reasons such as having a religious name or displaying religious symbols.
Still, critics objected.
Several senators said the bill specifically should bar groups from using federal funds to proselytize. They said it should expressly prohibit groups from getting tax dollars from discriminating against beneficiaries or employees of other religions. Without this clarification, the administration would interpret the law on its own to allow these things, they said.
Unable to overcome these objections, Santorum said he was stripping the contested language from the bill.
A prominent opposition group declared victory.
"This is a huge step in the right direction," said Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "This shows that members of Congress can increase aid to religious and secular charities without violating the Constitution."
Most significantly, the remaining legislation would give people who do not itemize on their taxes a break for donations to charity beyond $250 in any one year, up to $500. To keep the cost down, the new tax deduction would expire in two years.
The bill also gives tax breaks for corporate donations, allows tax-free donations from Individual Retirement Accounts and encourages banks to offer Individual Development Accounts, which match the savings of low-income people
It provides $150 million for a new fund to help small charities, including religious groups, expand their programs.
On the Net:
Information on the bill, S. 272, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/
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