May 24, 2002 | Backgrounder on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Senate's Response to the President's Faith-Based Agenda: An Analysis of the CARE Act

President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative has stirred a national debate about the role of religion in public life. The President clearly intends to elevate the importance of religious values and religious organizations in alleviating social ills. His effort is long overdue. Decades of government hostility toward religion have pushed faith-based institutions that assist the needy to the margins of social-welfare policy--depriving people of assistance that is often more effective and more compassionate.1

The Administration has advanced a three-part strategy. First, eliminate government regulations that needlessly hinder the work of religious organizations. Second, end discrimination against religious programs in federal funding for social services. Third, offer tax incentives to increase private giving to charities and other community organizations.2

The White House has made some progress by completing an audit of federal agencies to identify and review any discriminatory policies against religious providers of assistance.3 Congress has followed the President's lead by introducing faith-based legislation. In July 2001, the House of Representatives passed the Community Solutions Act (H.R. 7). It contains strong legal protections for religious charities taking federal money, though it offers very modest tax incentives to increase charitable giving.4

Legislation before the Senate would take the opposite approach. The Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act (S. 1924), introduced by Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), would provide very modest protections for religious charities that accept federal support but generous tax incentives to stimulate private giving. For some Senators, in fact, the plan may be too generous: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) already has complained about the bill's two-year $8 billion price tag.5

A Level Playing Field for Religion.
President Bush repeatedly calls on the federal government to encourage church-state partnerships that protect the independence of faith-based organizations (FBOs) without establishing religion. As the President puts it, "We will never ask an organization to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs."6

By stimulating more private support for worthy charities, the CARE Act could advance the President's goal of bolstering the work of FBOs that help the poor. By mandating the "equal treatment" of social service providers, the bill would help end government discrimination against religious organizations in federal funding. And by authorizing new federal money for maternity group homes, it could expand the work of faith-based organizations helping families in crisis.

But to achieve what the President calls "a level playing field" for religious groups, faith-based legislation approved by Congress should (1) be more realistic about the limits of tax incentives to boost charitable giving and (2) incorporate stronger religious liberty protections than what the Senate is now considering. Specifically, the Senate should:

  • Examine the need for using tax credits and subsidies in lieu of a more active involvement of nonprofits in the support of individual development accounts (IDAs). These accounts help low-income Americans develop savings for key life events (such as homeownership and education) by matching their savings with the contributions of nonprofits and financial institutions. Given the enormous resources of U.S. grant-making nonprofit organizations, eliciting matching funds by offering tax credits to banks may be unnecessary.
  • Attach to maternity-home funding the religious freedom protections for faith-based organizations that were passed by Congress in the 1996 "charitable choice" law and in subsequent faith-based legislation.
  • Authorize states to convert direct federal funding for maternity homes to certificates or vouchers for needy families to use at the facilities of their choice.

The Care Act's Tax Incentives

Title I of the CARE Act contains a number of provisions designed to encourage charitable giving by individuals and businesses. Individual taxpayers who currently do not itemize their charitable contributions and those who want to assign their individual retirement accounts (IRAs) to charities would be able to do so and benefit from favorable tax treatment. Corporations would be able to give more to charities over the next two years, and nonprofits would be encouraged to make more social investments.

Specifically, the CARE Act includes provisions for:

  • Taxpayers who do not itemize. Millions of taxpayers currently use the standard deduction to lower their tax bills rather than itemize deductible expenses. In nearly all cases, this choice is driven by IRS regulations that require the use of the standard deduction when itemized deductions are less than the standard deduction. A deduction for non-itemizers was phased out beginning in 1987. Thus, millions of taxpayers do not get to deduct their charitable contributions, which can only be claimed on the Schedule A itemized deduction form. The CARE Act would restore the deductibility of charitable contributions for non-itemizers--but only for two years.7 An individual would be able to deduct $400 in gifts, and a couple could claim a deduction of up to $800 in charitable donations.
  • Tax-free distributions from IRAs. Current law taxes gifts to charities made by taxpayers from the proceeds of their IRAs. However, many taxpayers have substantial retirement accounts that could supply income for their retirement and still allow charitable gifts. For taxpayers who have reached the age of 67, these gifts would be tax-free under the CARE Act.
  • A temporary increase in corporate giving. The CARE Act provides for a two-year increase in the percentage of income that a corporation can deduct in charitable gifts. Current law sets a cap of 10 percent of income. The CARE Act would increase this to 15 percent by 2003 before dropping to 10 percent again in 2004.
  • A more liberal allowance for deducting gifts of books, food, and bonds. Current law limits the deductions that corporate taxpayers can claim for the contributions of these items. The CARE Act relaxes these limits, thereby permitting companies whose products could benefit "the ill, the needy, or infants" to make larger contributions.
  • A reduction in nonprofit excise taxes. A number of private nonprofit foundations and trusts currently pay excise taxes on a portion of their income. The CARE Act provides for a reduction in the excise tax rate from 2 percent to 1 percent if the trust or foundation funds certain presumably charitable activities.

Charitable contributions are very likely to grow from at least two of these tax provisions. Permitting individuals with substantial IRAs to make tax-free charitable contributions and increasing the cap on corporate contributions does significantly reduce taxes on these types of taxpayers. These taxpayers also are capable of significantly changing their contribution levels over a short time period. Thus, S. 1924 holds out some promise of expanding the current level of charitable giving.8

Despite the well-intentioned nature of all of the bill's tax incentives, however, the CARE Act's other tax provisions will likely fall short of the goal of expanding charitable gifts. A large and growing body of research indicates that the level of charitable giving among middle-class taxpayers generally does not change when tax law does. What does matter for the charitable gifts of these taxpayers is the level of after-tax income.9

In addition, the CARE Act creates temporary tax breaks: Most of the deductions and tax rate changes revert to current law on January 1, 2004, and thus cannot be counted on to produce a permanent change in taxpayer behavior. Add this shortcoming to the likelihood that only a few of the proposed tax changes will unlock charitable gifts, and the tax provisions may not produce the increase in charitable contributions that the bill's sponsors envision.

The Care Act's Individual Development Accounts

Title II of the CARE Act would create a new form of tax-advantaged savings account called an individual development account (IDA). Low-income adults between the ages of 18 and 61 could open an account and make contributions that a sponsoring bank or community organization could match. The matching contributions would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $500 per account. IDA participants would be expected to attend classes on managing money and assets, and local experiments with IDAs indicate that about 12 hours of such education produces significant changes in the participants' success with the program.

The intent of IDAs is to create financial independence among low-income workers who otherwise might live on and off government welfare programs. A nationwide experiment with IDAs--the American Dream Demonstration (ADD) project administered by the Center for Enterprise Development--indicates that this goal is achievable. The average participant made a deposit in seven out of 12 program months, with the average monthly deposit just over $25. With a 2 for 1 match, the average IDA amounted to $900 after one year. After two years of the experiment, 81 percent of participants remained active.10

The monies in these accounts, however, could be spent only on particular assets or activities and still be eligible for matching dollars. Buying a first home, starting or expanding a micro business, or purchasing post-secondary education (including job training) would qualify; medical care, transportation, and day-care expenses presumably would not. In the American Dream Demonstration project, 57 percent of those participants who had not yet made a withdrawal told evaluators that they were waiting to use their funds to buy a house; 15 percent were going to use it for post-secondary education; 18 percent, for starting or expanding a micro business; 4 percent, for home repair; 4 percent, for retirement; and 2 percent, for job training.11 Those participants who had made a matched withdrawal spent the funds as follows: 18 percent spent their funds on a home purchase; 22 percent had spent the money on post-secondary education; 30 percent, on micro businesses; 20 percent, on home repair; 9 percent, on retirement; and 3 percent, on job training.

While the ADD experiment relied on matching funds from nonprofit organizations, the CARE Act's IDA program would expand the pool of matching organizations to include financial institutions whose contributions would be offset by a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. Of the many challenges that face the implementation of individual development accounts, the use of tax credits may be the "sleeping giant." Including a tax credit in a program that relies almost entirely on an infrastructure of charitable and nonprofit organizations introduces the politics of tax credits into a realm of social work where it may not be needed. The Act's sponsors suggest that the tax credit cost of the legislation may be $1.7 billion over the next 10 years. That amount would not appear to be beyond the independent sector's means. Thus, insisting on a tax credit for financial institutions does not appear to be essential for the success of this initiative.

The Care Act's Treatment of Religious Charities

S. 1924 contains several provisions to encourage the direct participation of religious organizations with government funding. Title III calls for the "equal treatment of non-governmental providers" in federally funded programs. It would prohibit government agencies from forcing FBOs to (1) remove religious icons or Scripture from their facilities; (2) amend religious provisions in their chartering documents; or (3) amend religious qualifications for membership on their governing boards. Title III also would authorize large community organizations receiving government grants to award subcontracts or subgrants to smaller grassroots groups, with an eye to increasing competition among providers.

These rules would be universal: They would apply to all federal, state, or local social-service programs that involve federal money. That is important because it would mark an accommodation for religious belief across federal welfare policy.12

Title IV of S. 1924 also would invite religious participation by encouraging congregations and charitable groups to set up separate nonprofits to administer social services. The "E-Z Pass" proposal would streamline the application process to obtain a 501(c)(3) designation. This is a useful idea: An
E-Z Pass approach would make it simpler for providers to qualify for federal grants and contracts, confirm an organization's eligibility to receive tax-exempt donations, and help protect parent organizations--such as churches and synagogues--from government audits.

Nothing in these provisions, however, fundamentally challenges the status quo: the secularizing drift of government's social-welfare system. Not only do federal grants and contracts for social services tend to exclude faith-based providers outright, but most require religious elements to be purged or strictly quarantined. Many government officials even oppose programs in which religious activity is voluntary and privately funded.13

It is precisely at this point, however, that the real test of religious liberty occurs. The First Amendment requires that government do more than merely tolerate organizations that hold religious viewpoints in private: It must accommodate those viewpoints by creating public space for them, allowing religious values and religious speech to inform the content of programs helping the needy. Otherwise, the free exercise of religion becomes a meaningless slogan.14

S. 1924 does not meet this test of religious liberty. While encouraging faith-based charities to participate in federal funding, the bill fails to change the basic rules of the game--rules that help to keep religious values and institutions mostly on the sidelines of social-welfare policy. In short, the legislation would make it easier for faith-based organizations to receive direct federal support but would offer no legal assurance that such groups could preserve their religious mission once they got it.

The Principles of Religious Freedom

Congress can do better for the nation's religious institutions that assist the needy--indeed, it already has. A significant challenge to the existing system arrived with passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which includes a provision called "charitable choice." The law codifies the most recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on government aid to religious organizations. In brief, charitable choice allows faith-based organizations to receive federal funding "without impairing the religious character" of such providers. While the law's most important religious liberty protections are contained in H.R. 7, they are missing from S. 1924.15

Under charitable choice, organizations maintain sole control over "the definition, development, practice and expression" of their religious mission. Though prohibiting government from directly funding religion, the law accommodates religious activities that are privately funded and voluntary.16 Faith-based organizations also retain their exemption from certain anti-discrimination laws that affect hiring policies. In other words, they can use religion as a criterion for employment.17 Finally, the law allows federal grants to be converted to vouchers or certificates and redeemed at programs that are infused with religious teaching--no questions asked.

Existing charitable choice law, however, affects only about $20 billion in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) money, community services block grants, and drug and alcohol treatment programs.18 House supporters of H.R. 7--notably co-sponsors J. C. Watts (R-OK) and Tony Hall (D-OH)--fought hard to extend its protections. Their bill would cover 80 additional federal programs receiving more than $53 billion in fiscal year 2001.19

So far, however, the Senate has balked at the provisions. Senator Santorum has testified in favor of charitable choice and strongly supports expansion of the law, calling its provisions "essential to religious freedom.20 He represents an increasingly lonely voice. His co-sponsor for S. 1924, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), has publicly reversed his pledge to extend the law's protections to other federal programs. Senator Lieberman now wants to "preserve the option not to be locked into that language"--meaning the language of the 1996 legislation he proudly endorsed.21 The result is that important religious liberty provisions have been dropped from the Senate bill.

That does not necessarily signal a congressional retreat from the principles of charitable choice, but neither is it a step forward. Under Title VII of the CARE Act, for example, Congress would create a separate funding stream for maternity group homes and authorize $33 million in additional money.22 Although the Title III provisions of the bill--the "equal treatment of non-governmental providers"--would apply to maternity-home funding, the money would not be governed by existing charitable choice law. This would present a problem, since churches or other religious institutions support the vast majority of maternity homes.23 Once they accept federal support, it is unclear whether they could preserve the religious aspects of their programs--such as Bible studies, prayer meetings, or parenting classes based on religious teachings.

Without religious programs and religiously informed instruction, ministry leaders say their hands would be tied. "Many of the women we serve have experienced abuse and neglect. They often become hopeless, and they don't believe they're loved or valuable," says Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International, an association of crisis pregnancy and maternity centers. "The biblical message we bring is that they were created unique and special, and there is something called forgiveness. And that's the key message these women often need to hear.24 If faith-based maternity programs are not free to deliver that message, they are not likely to participate in government funding.

Expanding the Reach of Compassionate Care

To fulfill the President's pledge to expand the reach of religious charities while protecting their independence from government, the Senate should:

  • Examine the need for using tax credits and subsidies in lieu of more active involvement by nonprofits in the support of individual development accounts. These accounts help low-income Americans develop savings for key life events (such as homeownership and education) by matching their savings with the contributions of nonprofits and financial institutions. Given the enormous resources of U.S. grant-making nonprofit organizations, eliciting matching funds by offering tax credits to banks may be unnecessary.
  • Attach the religious freedom protections of the charitable choice law to the maternity-home provisions (Title VII) of the CARE Act. The bill's equal treatment provisions, though useful, are insufficient to protect maternity homes that consider religious values and activities crucial to the success of their programs. The charitable choice law, by contrast, accommodates religious activities that are voluntary and privately funded--activities that are typically offered by maternity-home providers.
  • Authorize states to convert the additional $33 million in Title VII of the Act to certificates for needy families. Women could use the certificates at maternity homes of their choice--secular or religious. Under current law, the certificate or voucher approach gives both faith-based organizations and recipients the most flexibility. 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. Such programs have been operating since 1990 without a single court case to challenge their constitutionality.25

Conclusion

Amending the CARE Act in these ways would advance the President's commitment to promote what he calls the "armies of compassion" to combat family and social breakdown. By emphasizing tax incentives to boost charitable giving, the bill would properly focus attention on the role of private philanthropy in addressing social ills.

By extending the charitable choice law to federal funding for maternity homes, the bill would offer public support for America's Good Samaritans while protecting their religious liberty. Most important, it would empower poor families, instead of government bureaucrats, and widen the choices of compassionate care available to families in crisis.

Joseph Loconte is William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society, and William W. Beach is Director of the Center for Data Analysis, at The Heritage Foundation.


1. See Stephen Monsma and J. Christopher Soper, eds., Equal Treatment of Religion in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). See also John J. DiIulio, Jr., Director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, "Compassion in Truth and Action," address before the National Association of Evangelicals, Dallas, Texas, March 7, 2001.

2. See George W. Bush, "Rallying the Armies of Compassion," White House news release, April 2, 2001.

3. See "Unlevel Playing Field," report from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, August 16, 2001.

4. The Community Solutions Act (H.R. 7) was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 233 to 198 on July 19, 2001. See also Joseph Loconte and David C. John, "H.R. 7, The Community Solutions Act," Heritage Foundation Web Memo, July 9, 2001.

5. Alan K. Ota, "Baucus Wants to Move Ahead with Charitable-Gift Tax Break," Congressional Quarterly Daily Monitor Extra, April 29, 2002.

6. George W. Bush, "The Duty of Hope," speech delivered in Indianapolis, Indiana, July 22, 1999. Bush has repeated the pledge several times since assuming office.

7. Despite the inability of millions of taxpayers to deduct their contributions, charitable giving by individuals has grown significantly over the past decade. Indeed, recent evidence indicates that the level of charitable giving by individuals responds much more to the growth in after-tax income than it does to changes in the tax treatment of charitable gifts. See Stuart M. Butler, "Why the Bush Tax Cuts Are No Threat to Philanthropy," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1417, March 8, 2001.

8. It is worth noting, of course, that a temporary increase in the cap on charitable gifts by corporations may adversely affect the market valuation of participating companies when the cap returns to 10 percent. The profitability of participating corporations should improve for two years and then degrade as their charitable deductions fall. In addition, expanding deductions (like creating new tax credits) is difficult to reverse later. Indeed, the growing number of credits and deductions increasingly threatens prospects of ever achieving significant federal tax reform.

9. For a review of academic and policy research on the responsiveness of charitable contributions to changes in tax law, see Butler, "Why the Bush Tax Cuts Are No Threat to Philanthropy."

10. For a thorough review of the ADD program, see Mark Schreiner et al., Savings and Asset Accumulation in Individual Development Accounts: Downpayments on the American Dream Policy Demonstration, A National Demonstration of Individual Development Accounts (St. Louis: Center for Social Development, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, 2001).

11. Ibid., p. 41.

12. The provision would not apply to a program "having the purpose of delivering educational assistance" under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 or under the Higher Education Act of 1965. It is also not clear that the language governing chartering documents would shield charities from other laws that might constrain non-governmental organizations.

13. During congressional debate over H.R. 7, for example, Democrats repeatedly characterized voluntary religious speech and religious activities in government-supported programs as coercive, discriminatory, and unconstitutional. See Charles Glenn, The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-Based Schools and Social Agencies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). See also Joseph Loconte, Seducing the Samaritan: How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services (Boston: Pioneer Institute, 1997).

14. See Arlin Adams and Charles Emmerich, A Nation Dedicated to Religious Liberty (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), pp. 43-73. "In a society characterized by expansive governmental power and regulation," the authors write, "accommodation of religion becomes increasingly important as a means for fostering religious liberty."

15. Charitable choice was first enacted into law in 1996 as part of the Welfare Reform Act. It was extended to the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program in 1998. It was extended twice in 2000 to drug and alcohol treatment programs under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Act (SAMHSA). See Carl Esbeck, "Testimony Before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sec. 701 of S. 304 Drug Abuse Education, Prevention, and Treatment Act of 2001," May 1, 2001.

16. Though mostly untested in the courts, the law appears to allow charitable organizations that receive federal support to carry out inherently religious activities--such as prayer, worship services, Bible studies, or evangelism. Based on the Supreme Court's current understanding of the First Amendment, however, such activities must be privately funded and separated from secular social services.

17. Opponents claim this provision invalidates the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Just the opposite is true: While banning acts of discrimination in employment based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or national origin under Title VII, the Act's architects crafted an exemption for religious organizations--including churches, colleges, and universities. Congress expanded the statutory exemption in 1972 to cover most employees of religious institutions, whether they served in clergy positions or not. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the protections in its 1987 ruling in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos.

18. See Joseph Loconte, God, Government and the Good Samaritan: The Promise and the Peril of the President's Faith-Based Agenda (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2001), p. 10.

19. See Republican Study Committee, "Policy Brief: H.R. 7, Community Solutions Act," July 18, 2001.

20. Senator Rick Santorum, "Faith-Based Solutions," Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, June 6, 2001.

21. Telephone interview with Dan Gerstein, communications officer for Senator Lieberman, February 2002. Lieberman supported the 1996 charitable choice law. He later voted to apply the law's protections to the Community Services Block Grant program and to programs under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Act. As Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 presidential campaign, he pledged to expand charitable choice to other federally funded social-welfare programs. For example, see Vice President Al Gore, speech to the Salvation Army, Atlanta, Georgia, May 24, 1999, in which he publicly endorsed charitable choice.

22. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act requires that minors live at home under adult supervision or in one of these maternity group homes in order to receive benefits.

23. Officials at Heartbeat International, a Christian association of crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and nonprofit adoption agencies, estimate there are about 350 pro-life maternity homes nationwide, the vast majority of which are faith-based.

24. Telephone interview with Peggy Hartshorn, president, Heartbeat International, May 10, 2002.

25. The legislative watershed was the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), included in the 1990 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. The CCDBG was reauthorized under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and no major changes were made in the language on religious providers. See E. J. Dionne and Ming Hsu Chen, eds., Sacred Places, Civic Purposes (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2001), pp. 216-234.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

William W. Beach Director, Center for Data Analysis and Lazof Family Fellow
Center for Data Analysis