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What if Wiccans are the charity of choice?

By The Associated Press
John DiIulio Jr., director of Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, center, flanked by Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., left, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, right, on April 25 during House-Senate Faith-Based Leadership Summit.

WASHINGTON — Sending taxpayer dollars to the neighborhood church or synagogue sounds like a great idea to many Americans. But what about government money for the Nation of Islam, Scientologists, Hare Krishnas or Wiccans?

The question is asked repeatedly in the debate over President Bush's plan to open federal programs to religious groups. Both sides agree there can be only one answer: Yes, all religions are eligible to apply for government contracts because to bar certain faiths from competing would amount to an unconstitutional government establishment of religion — favoring some religions over others.

''It's a settled issue of constitutional law,'' said John DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives.

''The Constitution requires equal treatment,'' said Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. ''If you fund the Methodists, then you've got to fund the Muslims and the Mormons, too.''

Still, the issue will not go away, partly because opponents like Lynn are doing what they can to highlight the unpopular aspects of Bush's plan and partly because supporters sometimes obfuscate when asked about the matter.

Testifying before Congress last month, DiIulio was asked whether Wiccans, people who practice witchcraft, could get money. He responded that he could not understand why anyone would focus on Wiccans. ''It just baffled me,'' he said.

DiIulio went on to explain at length how government contracting works, but he never said in clear terms that Wiccans would be eligible just like any other religious group.

His questioner, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., appeared a little baffled by the response. ''The bottom line is you agree with me,'' he said. ''It's a red herring — this (talk) about witchcraft.''

Listeners could have come away from the exchange believing that neither man would give Wiccans the chance to participate in the program.

The confusion has its roots in last year's presidential campaign, when Bush was asked whether the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, would be eligible for government contracts.

''I do not believe that any government funding should go to organizations like the Nation of Islam that spread hatred,'' Bush wrote in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League.

The question arose again in February when Bush launched his initiative. This time, officials said it would be impossible for government to pick and choose.

''Any organization that met the performance standards of the government contract would have the chance to compete,'' Bush adviser Steven Goldsmith told reporters. Asked if that meant a group's beliefs were irrelevant, he said, ''To go down the other route, you're on very dangerous grounds.''

Later, the Rev. Pat Robertson caused a stir when he expressed concern about giving money to groups like the Church of Scientology, Hare Krishnas and the Unification Church.

Government's traditional refusal to fund religious groups may not be right, he suggested, but it has had the positive effect of sometimes keeping nonmainstream religious groups out of the loop.

The public, too, appears jittery. A recent poll found that seven in 10 Americans believe ''charitable religious organizations'' should be eligible for government funds. But support dropped when people were asked about nonmainstream religions.

Asked if Muslim mosques or Buddhist temples should be eligible for money, only 38% said yes. For the Nation of Islam, it was 29%; for the Church of Scientology, 26%.

The survey, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, did not ask people whether their concerns about such groups were significant enough to scuttle support for the general idea.

These objections are enough to convince Marvin Olasky, an early Bush adviser on the matter, to drop the idea of government money for religious groups. Instead, he would like to give Americans tax credits for contributing to the charities of their choice — an expensive proposition that Olasky would pay for by cutting social spending.

Under the current plan, he said, everyone must be given a chance to compete.

''As long as the group can produce the results, carefully measured, whether they do it by worshipping Christ or Allah or Mickey Mouse is up to them.''


Senate, House mull charitable-choice debate

Religious, political leaders examine whether offering more federal dollars to religious groups offends First Amendment. 06.08.01

Federal funding for faith-based programs requires careful implementation
By Charles C. Haynes President Bush's ambitious plan to expand federal aid to faith-based programs appears to be gaining broad support across religious and political lines. 02.04.01

White House must build faith-based initiatives on common ground
By Charles C. Haynes Current congressional debates and public-opinion polls reveal that the more the people learn about the president's faith-based initiative, the more skeptical they are about it. 05.13.01

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