May 29, 2002 | News Releases on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Congress Urged to Take Vouncher Approach on "Charitable Choice"

WASHINGTON, May 29 2002-Congress can advance President Bush's goal of having the "armies of compassion" combat social ills by letting states issue vouchers for individuals seeking social services at religious or secular providers, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

"Poor families already enjoy this option under federally funded child-care programs, which offer them vouchers for day-care centers of their choice-secular or church-based," say Joseph Loconte and William Beach. "Such programs have been operating since 1990 without a single court case to challenge their constitutionality."

In addition, they say, lawmakers should ensure that the legislation they agree on offers both strong religious liberty protections and "realistic" tax incentives to boost charitable giving.

So far, it's been a case of "either-or," say Loconte, Heritage's Simon fellow in religion and a free society, and Beach, who directs Heritage's Center for Data Analysis. The Community Solutions Act, passed by the House of Representatives last July, features legal protections that would safeguard the independence of religious charities that accept federal money but offers limited tax incentives to encourage charitable giving.

Conversely, they say, the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., provides only modest protections for religious charities but contains tax incentives to stimulate private giving that-at a two-year price tag of $8 billion-some lawmakers consider too generous.

"President Bush has repeatedly called on the federal government to encourage church-state partnerships that protect the independence of faith-based organizations but don't establish religion," the analysts say. "Therefore, the faith-based legislation Congress approves should be more realistic about the limits of tax incentives to boost charitable giving and incorporate stronger religious liberty protections than what the Senate is now considering."

For example, the Senate bill calls for streamlining the process by which congregations can set up separate non-profits to make it easier for them to deliver services and protect their parent congregations from government audits. But it does nothing, the analysts say, to challenge a status quo that requires them to purge or strictly quarantine even those religious elements that are voluntary and privately funded.

Many faith-based maternity group homes would be unlikely to participate in CARE-funded programs if they were forbidden to deliver the religion-based message of hope and forgiveness they consider crucial to their success, group-home organizers told Loconte and Beach.

"The legislation would make it easier for faith-based organizations to receive direct federal support but would offer no legal assurance such groups could preserve their religious mission once they got it," the Heritage paper notes.

As for the tax treatment of gifts, the analysts applaud CARE Act provisions that would allow those 67 and older to donate, tax-free, from their IRAs and let corporations deduct a higher percentage of their incomes if they contribute to charities. But they also note the limited role tax incentives play: "A growing body of research shows that the level of charitable giving among middle-class taxpayers generally does not change when tax law does," they write.

Loconte and Beach say the Senate should leave IDA matching funds to nonprofits, which have more than enough resources, and protect organizations, such as maternity homes, that must include religious activities in their programs from government interference.

"This approach would properly focus attention on the role of private philanthropy in addressing social ills, empower poor families, rather than government bureaucrats, and widen the choices of compassionate care available to families in crisis," they say.

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