[Hpn] Bush denies "back-room deal" with Salvation Army on Faith-Based Intiative

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Fri, 13 Jul 2001 14:55:00 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  Associated Press - Wednesday July 11 11:31 AM ET


     By LAURA MECKLER, Associated Press Writer

     WASHINGTON (AP) - Weaving its way through a fresh round of
controversy over funneling federal money to religious groups, the
White House backed off a plan to let the groups ignore local laws
that ban discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Through most of Tuesday, Bush administration officials said they
were reviewing a request by the Salvation Army to issue federal
regulations to make clear that churches and other religious
charities that receive federal money are not subject to local
anti-discrimination laws.

Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials suggested the
administration was open to the idea, saying that accepting
government money should not force religious groups to abandon their

After several hours of attack by gay rights groups, Democrats
and others, however, the White House backed off. It said the
nascent review was complete and the regulation would not be

``There was absolutely no commitment made,'' White House
spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday. He suggested the media were
part of the problem, saying reporters should have done better
fact-checking with White House officials, rather than trusting
information that ``outside organizations purport to represent as

At issue are state and local laws aimed at protecting gay
rights. Some of them bar discrimination in hiring; others require
employers to offer health insurance and other benefits to the
domestic partners of gay employees. Typically, these laws do not
apply to religious groups. But it's not clear whether groups lose
that exemption once they accept taxpayer dollars.

The White House is not saying that taxpayer-funded churches
groups should be forced to abide by these local laws. Rather,
officials concluded that religious groups do not need overt
protections to bypass gay-rights hiring laws, said spokesman Dan

Legislation pending in Congress - and being pushed hard by Bush
- makes it clear that any religious group that gets government
money may consider religion in making hiring decisions. The courts
have said this includes one's religious practices - and for many
religions that could mean rejecting job applicants because they are

``That's when you get into definitions that will ultimately be
decided by the courts,'' Bartlett said.

For instance, a religious group could claim that federal law
allows it to hire whom it chooses, while someone else claims local
law bars discrimination against gays.

The legislation as written, Bartlett said, provides ``adequate
protections'' for groups that might object to hiring gays.

David Smith, a gay rights advocate, agreed that the legal issues
are unresolved and said the solution is for Congress to explicitly
bar discrimination against gays and lesbians. ``Federal funds
should not be given to organizations that discriminate on the basis
of sexual orientation,'' he said.

The issue was raised by an internal report from the Salvation
Army, the nation's largest charity, which suggested the White House
would put forward the regulation in exchange for support of its
initiative to open government programs to religious groups, now
pending in Congress.

The report said White House officials wanted to move the
legislation first ``and use the political momentum of this'' to
push through the regulatory change. And it said White House
officials believed a regulation was better than trying to move
separate legislation on an exemption, ``which is more
time-consuming and more visible.''

White House officials denied the quid pro quo, and the Salvation
Army said the author of the report overstated the relationship
between the issues.

Gay rights groups, Democrats and civil rights organizations
reacted strongly to both the appearance of a back room deal and to
the idea of skirting anti-discrimination laws.

By day's end, it was clear that the issue would mean a new round
of controversy for Bush's overall legislation.

``It will just deepen opposition and make many of my colleagues
more skeptical,'' Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said before the
White House changed course.

Later, Lieberman's spokesman, Dan Gerstein, welcomed the change.

``This is a reassuring signal after a very disturbing signal,''
he said. ``Hopefully it means we can now kind of refocus on finding
common ground and strengthening rather than weakening civil rights


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