Bush Era Could Bring New Bond Between Government, Faith-based Groups

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - When President-elect George W. Bush meets with black religious leaders Wednesday, he's expected to discuss ways to expand "charitable choice" programs that allow religious groups to administer government-funded programs for the needy. Bush announced Tuesday that he will create an "office of faith-based action" in the White House to lift remaining regulations that prevent religious organizations from taking part in federal programs.

Bush named six priorities for extending charitable choice. He plans to expand the federal charitable tax deductions at both the federal and state levels, raise the cap on federal income tax deductions for corporate gifts, extend state tax credits to corporations for those gifts, allow people to divert IRA funds to charity and provide liability protection for corporate in-kind donations.

The federal income tax deduction would allow the 70 percent of taxpayers who do not itemize their taxes to deduct charitable donations, while the new state tax credit would provide a credit of up to 50 percent of the first $500/individual and $1,000/married charitable contributions to charities. It's unclear whether Bush would have the state tax credit apply to state income taxes or some other tax.

Groups opposed to charitable choice plans acknowledge that the concept appeals to congressional Republicans and Democrats, as well.

"I don't think it will be terribly controversial because it was the one area where Al Gore and George W. Bush agreed," said Robert Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "They only disagreed about how much to spend. This is the type of project Democrats and Republicans both tend to like," said Boston. "There are very few lawmakers who perceive it as a serious threat" because Americans have historically looked to religion to help solve people's problems, he said.

"I think that's a fair assessment of what we're likely to see," agreed Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee. "President Clinton enunciated concerns [but still] signed [charitable choice plans] into law," he said. But the group will still press its case to the new Administration, said Folton. "We want to try to work with the Administration and get our concerns heard and reach out to President-elect Bush," he said.

Up until the 1996 Welfare to Work Act, religious groups and charities could run welfare-related programs only if they could do it separately from all religious functions and philosophy. With Welfare to Work and other subsequent reforms, religious groups were allowed to incorporate their beliefs with programs for the needy, so long as program recipients were free to opt out of religious activities or choose a non-sectarian program.

At this point, however, it's unclear how well charitable choice programs work compared to their non-sectarian counterparts, according to Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy studies for the Center for Public Justice, a group supporting charitable choice plans. That's due to a lack of quantitative analyses on the subject.

"It's not that these people don't have any idea," said Carlson-Thies, "but not the kind [of quantitative studies] that would stand up to social science research. But that is starting to be done now," he said.

Carlson-Thies said that the effectiveness of such programs has probably been hampered by the fact that some states have been slow to accept faith-based organizations, either out of fear or inertia. "We released a report card on states that showed that 38 of the 50 states aren't complying with charitable choice," he said. "In those states, despite the federal law, it still is the case that when a religious organization goes and competes for funds, they may get turned away entirely [for being] too sectarian. That's illegal, but states are still doing it," he said.

Nonetheless, Carlson-Thies believes that the main point is not whether faith-based programs are better for everyone but that people who want such help get that choice.

"It's probably not the case that all faith-based programs work better than secular programs," said Carlson-Thies. "However, what does seem to be the case is when you're dealing with an individual or family who is really stuck in their life, on drugs or on welfare for years, then it takes something more than providing a service. It seems clear that it makes a difference whether the service is provided by a 9 to 5 mentality or if there's something deeper that provides it," he said.