Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why We Should Care about CARE

James Skillen


August 12, 2002

For more than six months, the President has urged the Senate to pass faith-based legislation—the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment Act (S 1924). The CARE Act is a consensus measure designed to avoid the controversies of last year's faith-based bill, the Community Solutions Act (HR 7), that passed the House only after major fireworks. CARE, co-authored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Rick Santorum (R-PA), boasts 25 Senate co-sponsors and over 1,600 groups in support. Yet, despite Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's promise of action, CARE has languished. It nearly died in the Senate Finance Committee and now is in limbo, with the Senate in recess. Is the bill worth further effort? Should we care about CARE?

Like HR 7—last year's bill by Tony Hall (D-OH) and J. C. Watts (R-OK)—CARE promotes private giving to charities, in part through a charitable deduction for non-itemizers. Such action was made urgent by the charity crisis—the necessary reallocation of giving due to 9-11 and the downturn in donations because of the economic slump. CARE also follows HR 7 by expanding some federal programs (e.g., Individual Development Accounts) and by increasing technical assistance for grassroots groups.

Where CARE differs—the change that was supposed to smooth its way through the Senate—is its rules for federal funding of faith-based social services. HR 7 expanded Charitable Choice to new federal programs. CARE instead has a short section on "Equal Treatment" that many have dubbed "Charitable Choice lite." But that's a mistake. The CARE approach is different—different enough that some in the House's HR 7 majority have sharply criticized it.

Congress adopted Charitable Choice four times during the Clinton administration to make the federal government more hospitable to religious social-service providers. It sets a new standard for grants and contracts, implementing the US Supreme Court's neutrality concept that has replaced no-aid-to-religion separationism. Under Charitable Choice, governments must treat faith-based and secular providers equally, respect the religious character of faith-based groups, ensure that the needy have a non-religious alternative, and protect federal funds from diversion to inherently religious uses such as buying Bibles.

When senators said they wouldn't follow the House's lead by making additional federal programs subject to Charitable Choice, the CARE alternative was crafted: only make widely supported incremental changes to the existing federal funding rules. Thus no new framework that bolsters both the religious autonomy of providers and the religious liberty of clients; no expanded liberty for religious providers to maintain their faith basis when they hire and fire.

CARE is no substitute for expanding Charitable Choice. But its reforms are important. Officials would be forbidden to exclude groups because their names sound religious, their boards include clergy and other believers, or their mission statements refer to God. And CARE promotes intermediaries—larger organizations that manage government funds on behalf of grassroots groups. These rules give a big Amen to government partnerships with many kinds of faith-based providers and would apply to all federal social spending, whether the funds are administered by federal, state, or local officials.

Recent court cases (the Supreme Court Zelman decision backing school vouchers, a new Georgia case challenging the religious hiring standards of a United Methodist children's home) show that basic freedoms of faith-based organizations are at stake these days. The faith-based initiative is about more than just who gets the money. But if the whole Congress isn't ready to advance religious liberty and maximize help for the needy by expanding Charitable Choice, the least it can do is pass CARE. Senators, it is time to act!

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Fellow
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”