(CNSNews.com) - President George Bush called on Congress during his final State of the Union message Monday to protect the Faith-Based and Community Initiative - a program some say may not survive in the next administration.
Bush specifically asked Congress to extend the life of Charitable Choice, a legislative provision that removes unnecessary barriers to faith-based organizations receiving federal funds for certain social services they provide, such as alcohol and drug treatment programs.
"Faith-based groups are bringing hope to pockets of despair, with newfound support from the federal government," Bush told members of the Senate and House. "To help guarantee equal treatment of faith-based organizations when they compete for federal funds, I ask you to permanently extend Charitable Choice," he added.
Conservatives are split on Charitable Choice and on the president's overall faith-based plan. Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, has never been a supporter.
"I think this is George Bush as classic 'compassionate conservative, big-government conservative,'" Tanner said. "The president's continued support for the faith-based initiative shows that he continues to believe that nothing good can happen unless it is run out of Washington, D.C."
But Tom McClusky, vice president of government relations at the Family Research Council, said Charitable Choice - and the overall Faith-Based Initiative - has benefited both faith-based groups and communities.
"I think it is important, because it allows organizations to do their jobs without the burden of government on top of them," he told Cybercast News Service.
Jim Towey, who ran the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006, told Cybercast News Service he is worried about the program's fate because there has been nothing but silence on the issue from the presidential candidates.
"I think it's important that there be a discussion," Towey said. "If you are talking about having meaningful programs for the poor, you have to successfully engage the faith-based community, and I just haven't heard anybody body talk about it. I just don't think the candidates should get a pass on this important question."
Only one candidate, Republican hopeful Rudy Giuliani, has specifically pledged to continue the faith-based initiative if elected president - doing so in 2007.
Towey said three other candidates have some "history" on the program, though they haven't discussed it: Republicans Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"Gov. Romney actually opened a faith-based office in Massachusetts," he added. "His wife really pioneered it in the '90s, before President Bush even talked about faith-based initiatives."
As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee opened an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2004 and ordered state offices to incorporate Charitable Choice.
Clinton has also supported elements of the faith-based initiative, Towey said.
Towey, who left the White House in 2006 to take the helm of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., is calling on the three other major candidates - Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrats Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards of North Carolina -to engage the issue.
All three have been generally supportive of faith-based approaches in the past, though none has specifically endorsed Charitable Choice or the Faith-Based Initiative.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is the only candidate on record opposing the president's faith-based efforts.
For McClusky, meanwhile, the time to preserve the program is now.
"We've been asking some of the departments that have their own faith-based offices or faith-based programs to try to make those offices a more permanent fixture, so that any future administration would have a hard time getting rid of them," McClusky added.
Charitable Choice was the only feature of the Faith-Based Initiative to become law. President Bush instituted much of his faith-based program in an executive order issued in 2002.
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