Associated Press, Mar. 28, 2003
WASHINGTON – Unable to pass even a watered-down version of the president’s faith-based initiative, congressional sponsors said yesterday they would remove all efforts to open government programs to churches and other religious groups from the bill.
Their legislation instead will just provide tax breaks for donations to charities, including religious groups.
”I would have liked to have gotten the whole enchilada, but in the United States Senate this year, you’re lucky to get anything, and I’ll take anything,” said Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican.
Santorum said the Bush administration has succeeded in rewriting government regulations to open programs to religious groups, making legislation less urgent. He also said the tax provisions will aid charities, including many that are religious.
Santorum said House Republicans had agreed to go along with the scaled-back bill – a remarkable shift.
The initiative, at the center of Bush’s ”compassionate conservative” agenda, met stiff opposition from the start two years ago.
After a bitter debate, a divided House approved Bush-supported legislation opening a dozen new social programs to religious groups. It allowed these groups to hire or fire based on their religion, and allowed them to skirt state anti-discrimination laws.
The bill was strongly opposed by civil rights groups and others, and when it got to the Senate, sponsors Santorum and Democratic Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, scaled it back.
Their bill initially offered tax breaks and made it clear that religious groups may not be excluded from government contracts for having a religious name or displaying religious symbols.
Still, critics objected.
Unable to overcome the objections, Santorum said he was stripping the contested language from the bill. The head of the White House faith-based office pledged to continue the fight.
Most significantly, the remaining legislation would give people who do not itemize on their taxes a break for donations to charity beyond $250 in any one year, to $500. The deduction would expire in two years.
The bill gives tax breaks for corporate donations, allows tax-free donations from Individual Retirement Accounts, and encourages banks to offer Individual Development Accounts that match savings for low-income people.