Faith-Based Initiative Gutted by White House Intransigence

Although the Bush administration disputes that its two-year struggle to secure legislation aiding faith-based charities has foundered, both supporters and opponents say its hard-nosed legislative approach led to the demise of the bill's faith-based provisions, the Washington Post reports. The bill that finally passed the Senate earlier this month offers only new tax incentives for charitable gifts and makes no mention of religion.

One of President Bush's signature domestic plans, the faith-based initiative aimed to open government funding to religious groups that provide social services. Al Gore had supported a similar idea in the 2000 campaign, so it seemed like a sure bet. But while some Bush advisers warned that such legislation would require consensus building and flexibility, others urged House Republicans to proceed quickly with a full-fledged faith-based bill. "Instead of working to build a common-ground coalition, the White House allowed extremists in the House to hijack the faith-based initiative and pursue a partisan, polarizing course," said Dan Gerstein, spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), the bill's co-sponsor in the Senate.

The initiative exploded into a national controversy when the Post reported in July 2001 that the White House had promised the Salvation Army to explicitly exempt government-funded religious groups from nondiscrimination laws protecting gays. The administration quickly dropped its pursuit of the exemption, and the bill passed the House only after GOP leaders agreed to address hiring discrimination in future negotiations. The furor doomed the legislation in the Senate, however. According to Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a critic of the faith-based initiative, the White House could have avoided the hiring discrimination controversy with a more cautious approach. "The irony is 99 percent of churches that would get this money don't discriminate," he said.

Over the next year and a half, the White House tried to revive the legislation in the Senate without success. Lieberman and his co-sponsor, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), finally agreed to a scaled-back version of the bill that included modest tax incentives and proposed "equal treatment" for religious charities, but even this compromise failed. The final bill was a package of charitable tax incentives that were barely 15 percent of the amount originally proposed by President Bush. The White House maintains that it has made significant progress on the initiative through regulatory changes that open up funding to religious groups. But those changes, which took effect in late 2002, could be easily challenged in court and rescinded by future presidents.

Dana Milbank. "Bush Legislative Approach Failed in Faith Bill Battle." Washington Post 04/23/2003.