Alaska Republicans back Bush voucher and faith-based initiatives

Posted: Tuesday, February 06, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Alaska's congressional delegation is backing President Bush's school voucher proposal and his funding initiative for faith-based institutions.

The proposals may be on thin ice with those concerned about the separation of church and state, but Alaska's Republican representatives in Congress say a little cracking of that ice may be justified as long as government doesn't endorse religions or fund their evangelism.

The most significant changes proposed by Bush would not be in federal contracting policy but rather in tax policy, Rep. Don Young said.

Bush wants to allow people who do not itemize their taxes to nonetheless deduct charitable contributions from their taxable income.

He also wants states to offer tax credits on half the first $500 contributed by individuals and the first $1,000 by couples and companies. And, among other things, he wants to let corporations deduct contributions of up to 15 percent of their taxable income. The current limit is 10 percent.

Young sees the issue in practical terms.

''If we have a problem, let's find a solution,'' he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I don't think we can be overly proud'' when drugs and poverty remain enormous problems.

Religious groups should be able to get federal contracts just as secular organizations do if they can offer some solutions, Young said.

Sen. Ted Stevens said he also sees the practical benefits of increasing church involvement in social services.

''These faith-based institutions are already the location of enormous volunteerism,'' Stevens said, ''and if our federal money is going to go and do the job, we've got to start using the volunteers that already (are) organized in the communities.''

Sen. Frank Murkowski said it's not realistic to believe social services are the obligation of government, alone.

Stevens noted that government for years has funded social services run by church-affiliated groups. The difference is Bush is directing some presidential weight to the effort, he said.

Bush has said he also wants to form a ''compassion capital fund'' of federal and private money to help small charities, like those often run by churches, compete.

The work can be done in a way that respects religions but doesn't offend the basic concept of separation of church and state, Stevens said.

Under existing rules, church groups can't use federal money for worship services and can't turn away people of different religions.

In the 1996 welfare reform package, Congress loosened restrictions so church groups receiving federal money can consider religion when hiring and retain religious symbols in their facilities.

Mixing public money with religion's goals also enters the debate over Bush's other high-profile, first-week agenda item -- his education plan and its advocacy of a limited voucher program.

With vouchers, the government, seeking to improve schooling, would hand tax money not to contractors but to parents.

Young didn't see any need for concern about whether the government should restrict religious uses of voucher money as it does with contracting money.

''You're getting farther down the line than I am,'' he said. As with faith-based initiatives, Young said he would prefer to focus on what good might be done with vouchers.

Stevens said he didn't think there was a parallel between federal vouchers and federal contracting. Vouchers would be aid to families. He sees a basic distinction between that and aid for institutions.

Murkowski, who said he believes in separating church and state, also noted that Bush's program would only be a test.

''I support a pilot program,'' he said of the vouchers. That may answer some questions about its impacts, he said.

''I don't want it to come at the expense of the public system,'' Murkowski said.

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