Sunday, April 15, 2001

President Bush’s
faith-based giving
program can pass
constitutional muster

The issue: The White House initiative
to provide funding for religion-based
charities is being considered
by Congress.

PRESIDENT BUSH'S initiative to provide more government financing to social service programs based on religion has gained broad public favor. However, the specifics of the plan are drawing criticism from both practical and legal standpoints as Congress begins consideration. It will have to be crafted carefully to provide assistance to such programs while main-training the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

A voucher system allowing the recipient of social services to choose an overtly religious provider is the most logical method. Large amounts of federal money already go to church-affiliated organizations that provide social services, most prominently local agencies that have operated for decades under the umbrellas of Catholic Charities USA and Lutheran Services in America. Those charities do not proselytize or discriminate in hiring practices by limiting their staffs to members of their respective churches.

Familiarity with such programs may account for six in 10 people telling pollsters they support public funding for Catholic churches, Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues.

However, only one in four favors tax money going to Buddhist temples and groups that encourage religious conversions as part of their services. A mere one in four would support funding of the Nation of Islam or the Church of Scientology, according to results of a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life.

"We are going to fight this very hard," says Charles M. Loveless, lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the parent union for Hawaii's United Public Workers and Hawaii Government Employees Association. "It is going to pit religious, nonprofit and public agencies against each other and put government in the business of picking and choosing among religions."

John J. DiIulio Jr., director of the White House Office on Faith-based and Community Initiatives, seems to realize it doesn't have to be that way. He has said that overtly evangelical social service programs would most likely be eligible for vouchers but not for direct government grants. A spokeswoman for his office has added that "in a situation where there's a pervasive religious presence, that's where vouchers could be used."

Essentially, that would mean that once a person has been certified as in need of a particular social service, the government would issue a voucher that the person could use to pay to a religious provider of that service. The provider then could redeem the coupon. The government would not be choosing the religious provider; the person needing the service would.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities and similarly secular service providers could continue operating as they have been and receiving direct government grants.

Providing grants directly to any organization that discriminates in its hiring practices on the basis of religion or preaches to its clients would not be acceptable and would almost certainly be struck down by the courts. The Bush administration's goal of assisting religion-based charities can be achieved without taking that risk.

species face
new hazards

The issue: A Bush proposal
would eliminate citizens and courts from
the process of protecting rare
plants and animals.

THE BUSH administration, through its budget plan, proposes to give the Interior secretary the authority to control listings of endangered species, taking away from the courts and the citizenry an effective tools for protecting plants and animals in danger of extinction.

If put into practice, this plan would not be good for Hawaii, which has 365 endangered species, the most in the nation. The state bird, the nene and the state flower, the yellow hibiscus, are endangered and lack designated habitats crucial to their survival. Hawaii has 15 species considered threatened and 130 species that are candidates for the endangered list.

President Bush's proposal would allow Secretary Gale A. Norton to waive a provision in the 1973 Endangered Species Act that allows citizens and environmental groups to sue the department to get rare plants and animal listed.

Administration officials argue that the plan is an effort to break a logjam of legal action that has hindered the laws' effectiveness and hampered the department's control.

But this provision is vital. In Hawaii, only five endangered species have received habitat protection without a lawsuit, according to the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that represents citizens and conservation groups.

If Congress approves the plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would use its budgeted $8.5 million next year to list cases it deemed as priorities, while being specifically barred from spending any money to carry out new court orders or settlements involving other plants or animals.

Further, It would be allowed to ignore deadlines intended to give citizens a way to force the department to protect species even if it was under pressure not to and when time was crucial. Margo Stahl, assistant refuge manager for the wildlife service's Oahu Refuge Complex, contends that lawsuits "force us to drop everything we're doing to focus on a particular species."

David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice in Hawaii, said the Interior Department is under-budgeting the endangered species program. Nine years ago, the former Bush administration budgeted $10 million for the program. Henkin argued that to designate $1.5 million less is irresponsible. The courts have consistently rejected lack of funds as an legal defense for not carrying out the law's requirements .

Moreover, the vehicle Bush is using to undercut the act is his budget proposal. If he is unhappy with the law, he should place the issue before Congress instead of attempting to render it ineffective through the back door.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, President

John Flanagan, publisher and editor in chief 529-4748;
Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

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