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Bush presses funding for faith groups

WASHINGTON -- Through executive orders, an aggressive wooing of religious groups, and his unflagging commitment to use the bully pulpit, President Bush has bypassed a reluctant Congress and is fulfilling his inaugural promise to bridge the historic separation of church and state and make his administration the most faith-friendly in memory.

The effort, carried out by Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and branches in seven federal agencies, is starting to bear fruit as it encourages religious groups to compete for public funds and directs millions of dollars in social-service grants to ministries and houses of worship, which can retain their religious identity and sidestep federal civil rights laws that bar discrimination in hiring.

Faith-based groups "don't want the church to be the state, and we don't want the state to be the church. But our government should support the good work of religious people who are changing America," Bush said last month at the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. "Slowly but surely, we are changing the culture."

As he campaigns for reelection, Bush hopes to energize his important base of evangelical Christian voters by citing the faith-based initiative as a domestic-policy accomplishment and to convince African-Americans, who gave him only 8 percent of their vote in 2000, that his administration's outreach to inner-city churches proves he is a compassionate conservative, said a White House official who asked not to be named.

Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, said the faith-based initiative holds out the promise that billions of dollars in federal contracts will reach religious charities that in the past were barred or discouraged from seeking public funds.

"What has happened is substantial and right, and maybe even historic, in terms of how the initiative has leveled the playing field for faith-based groups," Sider said. "Evangelicals are going to see this as an example of Bush articulating a vision and moving policy in their direction."

However, Sider criticized the president for failing to expand antipoverty programs, a concern so pressing that he and other leaders of faith-based charities, including the Salvation Army, Lutheran Services in America, and Volunteers of America, met at Washington's National Cathedral last week to assail Congress and the White House for shortchanging the needy in the federal budget. The groups vowed to make poverty an election issue.

"The faith-based initiative has become an empty reality, because all it has done is free up the diminishing resources to fight poverty and made them more available to faith groups," said Jim Wallis, founder of Call to Renewal, a federation of religious charities. "What a victory that is! It is like we have equal access to crumbs falling from the federal table."

Jim Towey, director of the White House faith-based office, said Wallis is wrong. A Democrat and devout Roman Catholic who once worked for Mother Teresa, Towey said new money is "hitting the streets" through the Compassion Capital Fund, which has distributed about $75 million since 2001 to faith-based charities and is budgeted by the president at $100 million for the 2004 fiscal year. New regulations also are making social ministries eligible for the first time for a host of government contracts worth $65 billion, Towey said.

"The jury is still out on whether that is going to translate into grants being awarded to faith-based groups," said Towey, who added that the administration focuses on the provider's results, not religion. His office expects to complete an accounting by spring of the number of new federal grant applications and awards to religious charities since the initiative began in 2001.

"Very quietly, through the perseverance of the president and a lot of people outside Washington, we are succeeding," said Towey, who travels extensively to tout Bush's initiative before faith-based groups and preaches on how they can partner with government to attack "spiritual poverty."

Joseph Loconte, a fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said Bush's visits to churches and commitment to the initiative, and the symbolism of having a faith-based office in the White House, are changing the culture in Washington and the role of religion in the public square. "This is the most faith-friendly government we have had in quite a while," Loconte said.

Outside of Washington, the White House is reaching out extensively to grass-roots groups. Last month, nearly 2,000 church and community leaders were invited to meet in Memphis for the eighth in a series of daylong regional conferences the faith-based office has hosted to explain the initiative, the rules for partnering with government, and the how-to of applying for federal contracts. Towey spoke, and representatives from federal grant-making agencies manned booths to answer questions. A ninth will be held in Tampa next month.

By 7:30 a.m., hundreds of people had formed long lines outside the Memphis Convention Center. Carolyn Williams, who was on the waiting list, had come because St. Paul's Catholic Church in Memphis wants to open a homeless shelter. The Rev. Steven Conley, a Baptist minister, wanted to know if there were funds for his AIDS ministry in Bastrop, La. Four members of the Faith Fellowship Church traveled from Lake Village, Ark., because they would like to start a ministry for at-risk youth. "The needs are so great," said Joyce Brooks of Faith Fellowship, which never before considered federal funding.

"I have embraced the faith-based initiative, despite it being part of the Republican agenda. It can make a positive impact on urban communities that are plagued with social problems," said Mayor Willie W. Herenton of Memphis, a black Democrat who spoke at the White House conference, where about two-thirds of the attendees were African-American.

Later in the day, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced three work force project awards to faith-based groups in Memphis, including $1 million for the mayor's Second Chance program to retrain former inmates. Herenton has a faith-based office in Memphis, as do governors in 20 states.

"These `come-get-free-money' conferences are partisan in the worst sense of the word," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group. The conferences are designed by political strategists in the White House, Lynn said, "to get the president 3 to 4 percent more of the African-American vote next year."

Jim Kennedy, a white, born-again Christian, does not see it that way. He said the $78,000 faith-based grant coming from the Labor Department will help him grow his Memphis ministry that retrains chronically unemployed men and has struggled to find them jobs and raise private funds in an economic downturn.

"It's going to increase our capacity and touch a larger part of the community," said Kennedy, an evangelist who engages his students in a voluntary 30 minutes of devotions, prayers, and a Bible reading every morning.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is the faith-based initiative collapsed in 2002 when the Senate refused to pass White House legislation giving pervasively religious groups both access to federal grants and an exemption from civil rights laws that bar discrimination in hiring. The Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, or CARE Act, a stripped-down version of an earlier bill that offers tax incentives for charitable giving, passed the House and Senate this year but is stalled in a conference committee.

Through an executive order he signed last December, and new federal-agency rules that went into effect in September, Bush has accomplished administratively many of the policy changes he proposed in the original legislation.

Melissa Rogers, a lawyer and scholar on the Constitution and religious liberties, said the Bush administration has made "very significant" policy changes for funding religious institutions and rewritten federal contracting rules through "an aggressive and wide-ranging process of regulatory reform" that has been carried out without legislative oversight and largely out of public view.

"They set out to make certain changes that were very controversial, and they are doing that," said Rogers, professor of religion and public policy at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University. "It's creating a lot of concern that they have gone too far in leveling the playing field and are undoing some healthy church-state rules that protect both religion and the government and its citizens."

To allow churches and social ministries to compete for federal grants, the Bush administration now is broadly applying the "charitable choice" language in the 1996 welfare law to billion-dollar social-service programs run by the departments of Education, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs. At HUD, eight programs permit religious charities to compete for $8 billion in public funds.

Under these rules, faith-based groups that contract with the government can maintain their religious identity, imagery, and mission as long as they do not proselytize or pray, turn away clients because of their beliefs, or purchase supplies such as Bibles with federal funds, Towey said.

The Bush administration also has amended federal rules, made first under President Roosevelt during World War II, that barred federal contractors from employment discrimination. Under Bush's executive order and unless expressly prohibited by statute, religious groups that receive government contracts can take faith into account in hiring -- a provision that the American Civil Liberties Union fought as discriminatory and lawmakers struck down when the faith-based legislation was debated on Capitol Hill.

"The ACLU is not running soup kitchens, and it is not running drug treatment programs," Towey told the audience in Memphis. "We need to work with groups that are."

Mary Leonard can be reached at mleonard@globe.com.

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