Bush Unveils Religious-Based Plan
By Sandra Sobieraj
Associated Press Writer
Monday, Jan. 29, 2001; 5:49 p.m. EST WASHINGTON President Bush, challenging traditional notions about separation of church and state, opened the door Monday for religious groups to receive government money for their work aiding addicts, prisoners, the homeless and more.
"We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them," the president said.
By his signature on a pair of executive orders, Bush created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives with counterpart offices in five Cabinet-level departments that will facilitate competition by religious groups and charities for a share of the billions of dollars that the government pays out for social services.
On Tuesday, during a visit to northeast Washington's Fishing School, a spiritual youth center, Bush planned to unveil the legislation he will submit to Congress opening all federal grant programs to participation by religious groups. His proposals will also include tax incentives and liability protection to encourage more charitable giving, aides said.
"Problems like addiction and abandonment and gang violence, domestic violence, mental illness and homelessness we are called by conscience to respond," Bush said during Monday's signing ceremony in the White House's Indian Treaty Room.
"As long as there are secular alternatives, faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis and in a manner that does not cause them to sacrifice their mission."
Religious leaders of varied faiths and political backgrounds a Catholic nun in her blue habit, a Muslim imam in his turban, an Orthodox Jew in his yarmulke surrounded Bush for a smiling photo. Among them were ministers Walter Fauntroy and Floyd Flake, both of them prominent black Democrats.
In a private meeting beforehand, Bush, who was opposed by nine of every 10 black voters in November, assessed the group and, according to several participants, joked: "If this was about politics, this room would be kind of empty, if you know what I mean."
Carol Porter, executive director of the Houston-based Kidcare, a 16-year-old "meals on wheels" program for children, told Bush in that meeting that the only condition tied to federal money for religious groups should be: "No proselytizing."
"I don't think the religion of anyone should be shoved down anyone else's throat as a prerequisite for service. Jesus didn't do that," Porter told a reporter afterward.
Bush put University of Pennsylvania political science professor John J. DiIulio Jr. in charge of the new White House office and asked former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith to watch over the initiative from a seat on the board of the Corporation for National Service.
The idea of religious participation is not entirely novel. The 1996 welfare overhaul signed by President Clinton and implemented in Texas by then-Gov. Bush allowed religious groups to help the government move people off welfare and into jobs. Seventeen of those groups in Texas are now being sued by the American Jewish Congress and Texas Civil Rights Project challenging the constitutionality of such "charitable choice."
At the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Barry Lynn called Bush's planned expansion an assault on constitutional principle that will only lead to more litigation.
"The First Amendment was intended to create a separation between religion and government, not a massive new bureaucracy that unites the two," said Lynn, an attorney and United Church of Christ minister.
Another opponent, Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said he was afraid that religious organizations, without tight regulation, could discriminate in a way federal programs normally would not countenance.
"I don't want Bob Jones University to be able to take federal dollars for an alcohol treatment program and put out a sign that says no Catholics or Jews need apply here for a federally funded job," Edwards said in an interview.
Goldsmith countered that the Bush administration would make sure to maintain secular service providers so that government would not "force someone through the door of a religious organization in order to get help. ... It can fund the soup, it can fund the shelter, it shouldn't fund the Bibles."
Goldsmith estimated that, under Bush's plan, some $10 billion in government-funded services such as after-school and charter school programs, domestic violence shelters and drug treatment would be newly opened to participation by religious providers.
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press