Having Faith in Fairness

From Associated Press

President Bush will not encourage discrimination or leave out minorities in his plan to use religious groups in government social projects, a White House advisor said Saturday.

"We're not trying to change the civil rights laws, traditions, landscape one iota," said the Rev. Mark Scott, associate director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Bush, who is still trying to sell the plan on Capitol Hill, is expected to seek support Wednesday from members of the National Urban League, a civil rights group.

Scott faced some tough questions as he outlined the plan to a group of young black professionals in town for the Urban League's annual conference.

"Realize why this audience was skeptical," Melinda Emerson-Heastie, 28, told Scott after the session.

She said people fear that under the administration proposal, politically connected white religious groups will qualify for government money while black groups will get nothing.

"There is a high probability that, once again, the black community is going to be left behind," said Emerson-Heastie, who owns a production company in Philadelphia.

A poll released last week by the Urban League showed 50% support in the black community for Bush's plan. In that same survey, nearly 95% said religion is important to them and three-fourths said the church is the most important or one of the most important influences in a community.

Among blacks, "faith and community are a long tradition," Scott said.

Congress is working on a bill that would allow churches, synagogues and other religious groups to compete for government grants without altering the religious character of their organizations.

Civil libertarians believe the effort is an unconstitutional mingling of church and state. Churches and other religious institutions are exempt from anti-discrimination laws that bar bias based on religion.

Jabari Shumate, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Oklahoma, said there is a wariness of Bush and his ideas, particularly the plan for churches.

"Many African Americans still feel a sting from the last election," he said. "The issue is very tainted."

Scott said black leaders have been to the White House and that Bush had considered visiting a Muslim mosque to demonstrate that he is reaching out to many religious groups.

"On the surface, it looks great," said Karla Ballard, 30, of Wilmington, Del., president of the National Urban League Young Professionals.

She said there is a reason to ask more questions because "we as a black community have been fooled before."

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