Seek alternatives to funding religious groups, some Jews say

WASHINGTON — Some national Jewish leaders are calling on President Bush to seek alternatives to his faith-based initiative.

Providing direct federal aid to religious groups that provide social services, they argue, could violate the constitutional separation between church and state.

Instead, the president should offer tax credits to individuals who give to charities, and provide indirect aid to religious groups with programs for the homeless or drug treatment.

A number of Jewish groups hope the Bush administration will be cautious in implementing its plan to provide federal funds to religious organizations.

But White House officials said Tuesday that the administration is not delaying any part of its faith-based initiative, contrary to a report in Monday's Washington Post.

The newspaper quoted the deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as saying the proposal "may need to be corrected in some areas."

However, John DiIulio Jr., the office's director, told a conference of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on Tuesday that "we are following our plan."

When Bush was asked on Monday whether he was backing down on his faith-based initiative, he replied, "Not at all."

At the same time, the White House, apparently aware of the criticism, appears to be moving ahead slowly.

DiIulio told the National Association of Evangelicals last week that proselytizing organizations that provide social services would not be eligible for direct federal funding, but individual recipients could choose to use public vouchers for those programs.

Just the suggestion of using public vouchers shows the administration is recognizing the dangers of direct funding and it looking for other ways to implement the program, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Saperstein and other leaders are pushing other ideas, such as tax credits for charitable giving, as a way of involving more religious groups in the care of the needy. Bush's plan includes a proposal to allow individuals who do not itemize their tax returns to deduct contributions to charities.

"I would not be surprised to see critics from the right and left join together to support these kinds of initiatives," Saperstein said.

Rallying around tax credits and other forms of government assistance to religious groups that could stimulate private giving are preferable to the risk of direct federal funding, which poses constitutional problems, Saperstein and other leaders said.

Most national Jewish groups oppose expanding financial partnerships between government and religious organizations in the manner suggested by the Bush administration.

They say it chips away at the constitutional separation between church and state, allows for employment discrimination based on religion and infringes on religious liberties.

The Anti-Defamation League has raised concerns about discriminatory employment practices by would-be recipients of funding and the need for safeguards against money going to hate groups.

DiIulio is aware of the "very serious stumbling blocks" in his program, said Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director.

The idea of public vouchers may be "interesting," but in the end the government is still potentially helping to fund hate groups, according to Foxman. Specifically, the ADL has voiced concern over the possibility that the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, could receive federal funding.

Religious conservatives such as the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell also have problems with the Bush plan. They are concerned that churches would be corrupted by government regulations and that groups they find objectionable could be rewarded.

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the religious conservative backlash "unexpected."

Rosenthal, who participated in the panel discussion with DiIulio, said she wants local religious groups to receive funding for identifying needs in their communities — rather than for running programs that could contain a religious component.

This funding would allow these groups to help the government without infringing upon the Constitution.

"There are other ways to be partners," she said.