WASHINGTON — Rejecting criticism that they are acting too hastily, members of Congress plan to introduce legislation this week supporting President Bush's proposal to expand financing for religious charities, including a provision to help alleviate hunger.
The proposal would give new tax incentives for charitable donations and allow religious charities to receive federal money for social programs, including child welfare and after-school care, crime prevention, job training and hunger relief.
Lawmakers said that while they respected their religious critics, whether evangelical Protestants or reform Jews, they believed the new programs would neither corrupt religious institutions nor threaten the wall between church and state.
"The right has to be careful that they don't make the same mistakes they made in the 1950s and 1960s during the civil-rights movement," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., R-Okla.
Watts and Rep. Tony P. Hall, D-Ohio, will introduce the bill on Wednesday as Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., introduces a more limited version in the Senate.
"We are moving full steam ahead in drafting legislation," said Santorum, who is co-sponsoring his bill with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
The Senate bill will include tax credits to help low-income workers open savings accounts, charitable contribution deductions for people who do not itemize deductions on their income tax returns, and full deductions for donations of food to charities. Lawmakers say they hope the deduction for food will encourage more restaurants and grocers to give to charities.
Hall, who asked that the food provision be added to the bill before he co-sponsored it, said he was surprised by the opposition to the measure. As founder of the Congressional Hunger Center, Hall said, he had seen religious organizations use federal money to fight hunger overseas.
"This is a no-brainer," he said. "I have seen this thing work overseas for a very long time, so why can't we use the same funding to care for our own people in this country?"
Some religious leaders say the fast-moving legislative agenda has put them in a quandary. They applaud the president for promoting their charitable work, but they worry that flaws in his proposal could undermine their efforts.
"The speed with which they're moving this along could blitz us away," said Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, who is working with religious leaders trying to block giving money directly to churches, synagogues and mosques.
"There is far more disquiet in the religious community than the president realizes," Horowitz said.
In a joint letter with Marvin Olasky, one of Bush's original advisers on religious initiatives, Horowitz asked the president to drop the idea of directly financing religious charities. Accepting federal grants, they argued, would "exert strong and consistent pressure on religious groups to dilute or eliminate the very component of their programs that in their view are essential to their success."
The polite rancor reached such a pitch that John J. DiIulio Jr., director of the White House office for religious initiatives, was teased at a forum last week about the unwanted attention for his cause.
"Everywhere you go, you see faith-based initiative, faith-based initiative, faith-based initiative," said Hannah Rosenthal of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
In recognition of DiIulio's efforts, Rosenthal said, she presented him with a black T-shirt with a new logo for his office: FBI.
In an earlier speech, DiIulio said, "We're not in this to be 90-day wonders, and so we wouldn't mind at least 90 days before reading stories about our rise or demise."
DiIulio's major challenge remains persuading political leaders to expand charitable choices beyond the 1996 program established by former President Bill Clinton, which allows religious charities to compete equally for grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under Bush's plan, the same groups could compete for money from the departments of Justice, Labor, Education and Health and Human Services to pay for programs to fight poverty, as long as they agreed not to use prayer or worship in the programs.
Watts, whose bill includes this proposal, said he would argue that Catholic schools in poor neighborhoods were the best example of how it would work.
"Catholic schools educate Baptist kids, and they don't make them into Catholic kids," he said. "They're concerned about those kids learning reading, writing, arithmetic and computer skills."