Bush Joins Meeting of Faith-Based Groups
Attendees Cheer President's Speech, Point to Signs of Government's Friendlier Attitude
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Page A23
The cover of the glossy, full-color booklet being distributed during a conference at the Washington Hilton yesterday showed a flaming shrub and proclaimed: "Not everyone has a burning bush to tell them their life's calling."
The Old Testament imagery suggested a religious tract, but this was a government brochure.
The guide, published by the Department of Labor, tells congregations how they can apply for federal grants to provide job training and services for veterans and disabled people.
On a nearby table, a sheet from the Environmental Protection Agency described a "congregations network" that encourages churches to become more energy efficient and, thereby, to put more money into their missions.
Supporters of President Bush's "faith-based initiative" point to those programs as signs of how much friendlier he has made the government toward religious groups seeking federal funding for social service programs, even though Congress thwarted the plan he had campaigned on in 2000.
More than 1,600 religious leaders and social workers from across the country converged on the Hilton yesterday for the first White House National Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. It followed 12 regional conferences that drew more than 15,000 people.
Bush spoke to the group, at times adopting the rapid cadence of a Baptist preacher, and was greeted with hearty responses of "Amen!" and "Yes!" He told about a man who had been taken in by Gospel Rescue Ministries after he left prison.
"It is a powerful change agent when you start reading the Bible in prison," he said. "This guy was lost, and now he's found."
Bush spoke for 40 minutes and drew a standing ovation when he said: "I'm telling America we need to not discriminate against faith-based programs. We need to welcome them so our society is more wholesome, more welcoming and more hopeful for every single citizen."
The president spoke in front of a White House-produced backdrop with the words "Compassion in Action." He said he was addressing "all faiths, whether it be the Jewish faith or the Christian faith or the Muslim faith or the Hindu faith."
"Listen, I fully understand there are people in the faith community who have said, 'Why do I want to interface with the federal government?' " he said. " 'Why would I want to interface with a group of people that want to try to get me to not practice my faith?' It's hard to be a faith-based program if you can't practice faith. And the message to you is, we're changing the culture here in America."
The plan is a crucial part of Bush's reelection strategy, because aides believe it will encourage evangelical Christians to mobilize to keep him in office and could give the ticket inroads in African American communities.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been critical of the administration's initiative. He said the administration has provided "less money for the poor, and all he does is highlight a few people who got the crumbs."
"It's certainly truth this has made changes in federal policy. But the constitutionality of this policy has not been tested," Lynn said. "So his changes could be very transitory and very limited."
During his speech, Bush acknowledged that his original plan "got stuck in the Congress."
"So I got frustrated and signed an executive order," he said, referring to the White House strategy of trying to achieve many of its goals through regulation and other executive action.
In conjunction with the conference, Bush signed an executive order creating faith-based "centers" at the Commerce Department, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Small Business Administration, bringing to 10 the federal agencies that have offices devoted to serving as advocates of religious organizations. Officials said these three will probably be the final centers, since they complete the coverage of agencies involved in providing social services and humanitarian aid.
Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the administration will focus increasingly on winning similar changes from state and local governments
"At the federal level, we've cleared the brush and have close to a level playing field," Towey said. "At the state and local level, there's a lot of examples of discrimination against faith-based groups. If they're administering federal dollars, they need to have a level playing field, too."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company