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Bush Advances Faith-Based Initiative

Times Staff Writer

Circumventing Congress, President Bush used his executive powers Thursday to make it easier for religious groups to obtain federal funds to perform charitable services.

Bush’s action puts into effect key elements of his faith-based initiative, a cornerstone of his agenda of “compassionate conservatism” and a proposal he unveiled just days after taking office.

The initiative was blocked by Congress’ failure to agree on the extent to which religious groups could mix their messages with charity work while accepting government money.

Under Bush’s order, groups that hire workers based on the individual’s religious beliefs will not be barred from receiving federal money, as they have been in the past.

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“When the federal government gives contracts to private groups to provide social services, religious groups should have an equal chance to compete,” Bush said in a speech to several thousand religious leaders and other representatives of religious charities. “When decisions are made on public funding, we should not focus on the religion you practice; we should focus on the results you deliver.”

In a setting that mimicked a bill-signing ceremony, Bush sat at a small desk behind a sign reading “Compassion in Action” and signed an executive order that he said would direct federal agencies “to follow the principle of equal treatment” in awarding social service grants.

Later, back in Washington, he also ordered such agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services to remove any regulations that might block religious nonprofit groups from qualifying for federal aid.

The measures implement an important part of the president’s initiative, but two important elements need congressional approval:

One would provide tax incentives to spur private charitable contributions for religious groups that deliver social services. The other would provide funding to help smaller faith-based groups compete for federal money to pay for the help they give the needy. A measure that did not pass Congress last year set a figure of $1.275 billion over two years.

Opponents argue that providing government funds to religious groups violates the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

“Bush is on a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based organization, and a minister in the United Church of Christ. He said the group would consider challenging the action in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union predicted that Congress would continue to object to what the group’s legislative counsel, Christopher Anders, called “taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.”

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To illustrate its objection to the plan, the ACLU noted that a Jewish psychotherapist, Alan Yorker, had sought work at the United Methodist Children’s Home in Decatur, Ga., which found him to be the most qualified applicant but denied him the job because of his religion.

In his speech here, Bush offered his own examples of the sort of charitable work that had been blocked by concern that it crossed the constitutional barrier:

The Victory Center Rescue Mission in Iowa had been told to return a government grant because its board of directors “was not secular enough,” he said. And the St. Francis House Homeless Shelter in South Dakota lost a grant “because voluntary prayers were offered before meals,” he added.

“I recognize that government has no business endorsing a religious creed, or directly funding religious worship or religious teaching,” the president said.

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But, he added, “Government can and should support social services provided by religious people, as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith.

“And when government gives that support, charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission.”

The trip to Philadelphia offered Bush an opportunity to shift the White House spotlight from Iraq and the economy to a program at the heart of his social agenda -- one favored by some of his most loyal, energetic and conservative supporters.

At its center is the use of nongovernmental groups to help meet the demands for social services -- work that the charities have traditionally performed and that relieves pressure on the government.

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Under the 1996 revision of the federal welfare law, for example, religious groups compete for federal funds to carry out foster care programs or to help welfare recipients receive job training. Or they might accept federal aid for drug abuse, alcoholism or housing programs.

Such charities, Bush said, deserve the support of foundations, corporations, individual donors and religious groups and, “when appropriate, the support of the federal government.”

He is likely to make the faith-based initiative a key part of his proposals to Congress next year, hoping that legislators will pick up quickly from where the previous Congress left off, although new votes will be required in each chamber.

In the last session, the House passed a measure that would allow religious groups to provide social services typically offered by government agencies -- receiving federal money for the work without having to muffle their religious missions. The president’s executive orders are close to the provisions of the House measure.

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The Senate never completed work on a bill placing greater restrictions on religious teaching and the groups’ use of religion to discriminate in hiring for their charitable work if they receive federal financial assistance.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who was trying to work out a compromise, called Bush’s action Thursday “a constructive step” and said it appeared to be “a sound plan for realizing the principle of equal treatment for faith-based groups.”


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