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Vouchers the answer to faith-based funding problem

WASHINGTON — Backers of the president's faith-based initiative are taking a thoughtful step back for a second (in some cases, a first look at the proposal).

The immediate reason for reconsideration of President Bush's effort to expand the "charitable choice" is the surprising opposition of a group of well-known Christian conservatives, including the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

But the problems with the legislation go deeper than the fears of these divines that government funding could go to the "wrong" religious organizations or, worse, force more orthodox groups to change their religious practices.

"The key problem," says Robert L. Woodson Sr., who considers himself among the progenitors of the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, "is that this whole thing has gotten bogged down in the grants thing. When the focus is on the government's writing checks to faith-based groups, then you get questions like 'Who qualifies?' or 'Who is legitimate?' or 'How can you enforce the separation of church and state?' "

Woodson, head of the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said his primary interest in the issue is the more limited one of ending government discrimination against faith-based programs.

"I remember a demonstration I led at the Alamo, some years ago, because Texas state officials were about to force a highly successful drug-rehabilitation program out of business because they didn't have licensed professionals as counselors and required their clients to do some work at the center and all kinds of crazy objections.

"The state finally relented after a Christian broadcasting company picked up the story, and I was invited to meet with then-Gov. Bush, who put together a commission that recommended exempting faith-based organizations from much of the bureaucratic regulation."

Woodson remembers John Ashcroft, whose appointment as attorney general was roundly criticized by black Americans, as one of the early backers of the idea. In the Senate, Ashcroft sponsored the "charitable choice" legislation the Bush administration now wants to expand.

But, says Woodson, the expansion is in the wrong direction. "What we are looking for is not funding but to leave these programs free to do their healing work. We want to allow the 70 percent of Americans who use the short form to claim charitable contributions as a deduction. That's part of the present legislation, and, as we see it, it will allow private grass-roots agencies to shop for some of their funding among the people they serve.

"But the big thing is, we want what amounts to a voucher system — a GI Bill for social services. In other words, once a person has been certified as in need of a service of the kind that the government pays for, he would be issued a voucher that he could then use to pay for the service, either at a government clinic or at a faith-based agency.

"In addition, we want to allow third-party payments, like from insurance companies, to pay for such things as drug or alcohol treatment."

The proposals — as outlined by Woodson if not as contained in the legislation now being considered — would go a long way toward resolving one of the central dilemmas of government cooperation with faith-based agencies.

It is widely accepted that spiritually based approaches are often more successful than secular ones when success involves changing not merely behaviors but also attitudes and beliefs. Computer training might be accomplished equally well by church-run or government-run programs. But rehabilitation from drug or alcohol abuse, reconnecting with family members, even changing the attitudes that make it hard for some people to escape poverty — these things may require something closer to transformation than education or training. Faith-based groups tend to do it better.

The question has been whether the government can fund such groups without violating church/state separation.

Woodson says it's the wrong question. Instead of trying to figure out how to fund the programs, he'd fund the clients, empowering them to take their vouchers to any program of their choosing.

That's how it was with the GI Bill. Returning veterans could take their education "vouchers" not just to the state universities but to Notre Dame or Southern Methodist or Yeshiva. And nobody worried about breaching the wall between church and state.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is Washington Post Writers Group