Charitable choice changes blur division of church, state

washington | The Bush administration is pursuing its charitable choice goals through new regulations that would allow religious groups to receive federal funds for charitable programs.

After Congress altered the White House´s faith-based proposal last year, the White House on Monday announced four new regulations that ease access for religious groups and provide grants for homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation centers, and provide housing subsidies.

It also proposed new regulations allowing for faith-based groups that receive federal funds to maintain their religious identity, including the display of icons and symbols.

The new regulations also would allow for religious charities that receive federal money to discriminate in hiring, allowing them to limit new hires to members of their own faith.

“What President Bush has said is he wants to remove barriers that have kept faith-based groups out or discouraged them from applying for funds for services,” said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “This brings us a step closer to where there is a completely level playing field for faith-based groups.”

The faith-based initiatives have been opposed by many in the American Jewish community for fear they will erode the constitutional separation of church and state. They also worry that religious groups will mix charitable services and proselytizing.

Orthodox groups, however, support the initiative because they believe it treats religious groups fairly and equally.

Liberal Jewish organizations say they remain concerned that Bush is doing through federal regulations what he could not do through Congress, after Congress changed the White House´s charitable choice package last year.

Congress removed the provision allowing religious discrimination in hiring from that package — and the White House enacted the provision Monday through the new regulations.

“It´s not just about proselytizing,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “It´s about government support for religious nature and character, programs that evoke a higher power.”

The new money available includes $8 billion in grants that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has set aside for faith groups. The Department of Health and Human Services awarded $30.5 million in grants to 81 organizations, which will use funds to provide technical assistance and subgrants to faith-based groups.