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Jewish World Review March 12, 2001 /17 Adar, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Faith and accountability

Sorting out the red herrings in 'charitable choice' debate -- IF anyone was actually paying attention to some of the issues discussed in last year’s presidential campaign, one point of agreement between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore was that both thought there was merit to the concept of "charitable choice."

The idea both candidates seemed to support is that faith-based agencies supplying social services to the public should be given the chance to get federal aid money that heretofore went only to secular groups.

Faith-based organizations are often generally considered to be most successful in helping people in need, especially when it comes to programs such as drug treatment. It seems only natural, therefore, to get more money into the hands of those who are making a dent in the worst social pathologies afflicting urban America.

But like many other issues that seem to have a consensus behind them when they are just theories, the closer we get to the implementation of charitable choice, the louder the criticism gets.

With President George W. Bush’s appointment of professor John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania to the post of director of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the debate is moving from the theoretical to one of brass tacks.

DiIulio was back in Philadelphia last week to speak to a group of community leaders and social-service providers. Listening to him speak to an audience that was, for the most part, hostile to his cause, you could see why Bush picked him for this role. He is a personable and thoughtful individual with the ability to make complex ideas sound simple.

His purpose, he said, was not to make ideological points, but to get more federal money to those who were actually getting results. If religious organizations are doing just that, it is the duty of the government to help them.

That sounds simple. But, of course, the reality is far more complex. The concept is running into a head-on collision with groups that are wary of any entanglement between religion and state. Those that regard any so-called breach in the "wall" of separation are ready to fight the idea because of what they think is its potential to weaken our constitutional liberties.

Already, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and others are preparing to head to the barricades to stop charitable choice and that is even before its advocates have put it into any concrete legislation that opponents can lobby against.

The issue is so contentious that a non-partisan study and dialogue on the issue failed to get any broad-based consensus to support the concept. The result of the dialogue in which the American Jewish Committee and the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University participated has revealed that even a document listing some limited points of agreement between advocates and critics, was too hot for groups like the ADL and AJCongress.

To DiIulio, the charge that charitable choice will mean the end of the Constitution is nonsense. Such arguments are, he said, "a rubber dagger." He says that his opponents are hyping these supposed dangers largely to feather their own organizational nests. Rallying people to oppose the idea by painting it as eroding separation is just a neat way to increase fundraising, he asserted.

On that score, he is right. Raising the alarm about the Bush administration can help invigorate liberal organizations and get their rank-and-file members riled up.

And he has some impressive answers to the critics. Those who claim that charitable choice will allow religious service providers to deny aid to nonbelievers are wrong. Few such providers are interested in doing that, he asserts, and even if they wanted to, it would still be against the law.

All groups that would receive aid under the concept — which is still a long way from being transformed from a bright idea into legislation for Bush to sign — will be forced to obey the law against discrimination. The exception will be that religious groups will still have the right to hire staff in a more subjective, and possibly discriminatory basis, a right they already retain under present law.

The most compelling argument voiced against charitable choice is that it will allow extremist groups and wacky religious entities such as Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam to become eligible for government money.

To that, DiIulio has a ready answer: They already are eligible.

"Any extremist group already can get federal funding if they have a 501C3" tax-exempt status, DiIulio explained.

He’s right, since the Nation of Islam has already received federal contracts from the U.S. Housing Department for security guards at inner-city projects. The same could well apply to the "Jews for Jesus" groups, the Ku Klux Klan or anybody else we rightly consider unsavory. "Charitable choice will actually make it harder for them to get aid," DiIulio argued.

That remains to be seen, but the point is well taken, nonetheless. Those who worry about the problems of entangling religious groups and the state have legitimate concerns. It isn’t clear exactly how a charitable-choice apparatus will work. And given the propensity of the government to screw up most of the social programs it touches, one shudders at the thought of expanding the purview of federal bureaucrats.

Nevertheless, the idea behind charitable choice is both noble and smart and, given the magnitude of our problems, worth a try.

But there is also another reason to support it. As DiIulio put it to a concerned executive of a service provider, one of the main interests of the initiative will be in evaluating existing programs. He aims to reinforce success, not failure. And, given the ongoing crisis in most of our urban centers, failure is an apt term to describe many existing efforts.

Charitable choice will probably not threaten the separation of religion and state, but it might seriously threaten the social-service status quo in this country.

If DiIulio is serious about what he believes — and he appears deadly serious — those who run existing programs face a new master who will insist that they merit support solely on the basis of their ability to help.

If DiIulio can actually shake up the welfare bureaucracy/social-service world and bring a greater degree of accountability to it, then the charitable choice experiment will have been truly worth the effort.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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