Bush orders regulatory changes after legislative version fails
Washington Post, via San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 13, 2002
Dana Milbank, Washington Post
Philadelphia — President Bush, seeking to revive his “faith-based initiative” after its legislative version failed in Congress, on Thursday announced a series of regulatory changes to allow religious social-service organizations to receive more government grants and contracts.
In a series of executive orders, Bush directed federal agencies to treat religious and secular charities equally when awarding money, removing regulations that had prohibited church organizations from competing for various federal grants and contracts.
The order will continue to ban overt proselytizing in government-funded programs but allows grant recipients to maintain a religious tone and iconography.
“The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end,” the president told a group of cheering religious and charitable leaders at a downtown Philadelphia hotel.
While promising to respect the constitutional separation between church and state, Bush declared that “charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission” to receive federal funds.
Immediately criticized by liberals as a violation of civil rights, Bush’s orders in fact closely follow the provisions of a compromise reached earlier this year by Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., but never enacted. The executive actions significantly scale back a legislative version drafted by House Republicans with White House support, and the orders avoid the most controversial provisions of that legislation.
Bush’s executive orders don’t include the tax and funding provisions that were central to his “faith-based” proposal. The White House had proposed various incentives to boost charitable giving, including a costly charitable tax deduction for those who don’t itemize their tax returns. Significantly, Bush didn’t exempt religious groups that receive government grants from state and local hiring discrimination laws, a protection sought by some religious groups opposed to homosexuality and included in the House version of the legislation.
Sponsors of the Senate version voiced support for Bush’s action but said more will have to be done in Congress to supplement the executive orders’ limited reach. Lieberman called it “a constructive step forward” but added: “I believe there is much more we can do,” including an expansion of funds for charities.
In drafting its new proposal, the White House worked without input from Capitol Hill. Santorum, informed of the details Wednesday night, said he plans to proceed with his legislation so that Bush’s executive orders cannot be rescinded by future presidents. But he said the size of the charitable tax breaks will be “cut back” because of budget problems.
Santorum also said he will continue to pursue the more controversial employment exemptions when the 1996 welfare law is renewed next year, calling the matter “a fight we will engage in.” Jim Towey, director of Bush’s faith- based office, said of the effort: “I think that’s going to go on for a decade.”
Bush, insisting Thursday that “I don’t intend to compromise” on his faith initiative, said: “I will continue to work with Congress on this agenda.”
Conservatives applauded the move but said it doesn’t go far enough. “This is not the whole thing — it’s the first drive of the second half, and it’s a touchdown,” said Marvin Olasky, who helped craft Bush’s “compassionate conservative” agenda.
Civil liberties groups continued their opposition. “Rather than compromise and work within the political process, the president has decided to circumvent public and congressional opinion,” said ACLU official Christopher Anders.
One order Bush signed explicitly allows religious groups serving as government contractors to hire on the basis of religion. This differs from an earlier executive order, although the White House argued that the change is consistent with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Bush aides said they believe religious charities receiving government grants already have such protection, even if it isn’t specifically mentioned in law — a view Lieberman shares.
But Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said the provision “violates one of the most fundamental principles of civil rights.”
Specifically, Bush’s orders require the concept of “equal treatment” for religious charities by the government to be reflected in all policies and procedures. Bush affirmed that government funds cannot be used for “inherently religious activities” such as worship, religious instruction and proselytizing.
But he made clear that government-funded groups can display religious icons and symbols and can select board members using religious criteria.
One order directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to end its policy prohibiting religious nonprofit agencies from getting disaster-relief funds.
Another order establishes “faith-based” offices in the Agriculture Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, similar to existing offices at the Education, Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development departments.