Washington Post: Lieberman on Cults

2 Mar 2001

Lieberman May Back Faith Initiative Bill

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2001; Page A07


Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a possible presidential candidate, yesterday signaled that he is more receptive than many Democratic colleagues to a number of conservative proposals to expand government grants significantly to social services programs run by religious institutions.

The former vice presidential nominee, according to his staff, is considering co-sponsoring legislation with Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) that would authorize this expansion -- a step that would effectively make Lieberman the Democratic point man for President Bush's "faith-based initiative."

Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, said at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that in the 1960s and 1970s, "Democrats seemed to be sending a message out that there was not respect for people of religion, that the party was dominated by nonbelievers, but, more than that, that faith was not thought to be in fashion."

He said he has taken as "my own personal political mission . . . to have people of faith feel equally welcome in the Democratic Party as they are in the Republican Party."

In what was billed as his first post-election speech on the Bush initiative, Lieberman outlined his position on a number of church-state issues, often taking stands opposed by civil libertarians and many mainstream Jewish organizations.

Lieberman said such groups as the Nation of Islam and the Unification Church should be eligible for grants to provide social services, including child mentoring, drug treatment and family crisis centers as long as these services are kept separate from church activities.

"It would probably be problematic on First Amendment grounds to discriminate against faith-based groups for their particular beliefs," he said. Such groups, he said, "should be judged based on what they do."

"If a nonreligious group seeking federal aid meets the program criteria, produces proven results, and does not violate civil rights . . . laws, it doesn't matter that they may have unconventional views on unrelated subjects," Lieberman said.

On the same grounds, he said, a Christian denomination that has placed high on its agenda the conversion of Jews should also be eligible for social service grants, as long as the money is not used for explicit religious purposes including the conversion drive.

Lieberman indicated in his speech he does not object to a law passed in conjunction with welfare reform in 1996 that exempts from certain anti-discrimination provisions of civil right law religious groups receiving federal money for social service programs, allowing them to restrict employment to members of one faith. These religious programs cannot, however, discriminate on the basis of religion when deciding whether to allow someone in need to get benefits.

Lieberman said the toughest issue in the faith-based initiative debate is whether such social services as prison rehabilitation and drug treatment programs run by groups that encourage religious commitments -- acceptance of Jesus as the savior, for example -- should be eligible to compete for federal money.

He suggested, by his own remarks, that he might be open to that: "Does society have more to fear from a rehabilitated drug addict who has broken his habit through an expressly religion-based treatment program than an untreated, unrehabilitated addict?"

Lieberman's views on much of the issue place him in a more conservative position than many other Democrats -- especially many of those considering a bid for the presidency, which requires winning primary contests among liberal electorates.


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