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Bush cheers House passage of 'faith-based' bill

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush praised House passage of his effort to allow federal funding of religious-based charities Thursday and urged a more skeptical Senate to follow suit.

The bill, which would give federal money to "faith-based organizations" that provide charitable services, is a major piece of Bush's domestic agenda. From London, where he was visiting en route to the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy, Bush called the vote "a victory for progress and compassion."

"One of the things that makes America unique is the loving spirit of the many people in our great country who want to help those in need," Bush said in a written statement. "Government should encourage them, and if these good people are acting based on the calling of their faith, we should respect and welcome them, and never stand in their way."

Message Board: Religion today  

The bill passed the Republican-led House of Representatives 233-198, but it faces further hurdles in the Democratic-led Senate.

"It's a good day," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. J.C. Watts, R- Oklahoma. "A lot of convictions and a lot of hard fighting on both sides, but I believe with every ounce of my being that we did the right thing today. Nobody apologizes for where we're headed."

Watts: "Nobody apologizes for where we're headed."  

If it gets through the Senate, the bill would mark a strategic shift for the U.S. government, making private and "faith-based" charities the administration's first line of defense against social problems such as poverty, addiction and homelessness.

The package would allow religious groups to compete with secular organizations for federal dollars to pay for after-school programs, drug treatment counseling, meal assistance and other programs. In addition, the plan includes broader tax deductions for Americans who make regular charitable donations.

Thursday's vote followed a one-day delay after a small group of House Republicans objected to the bill because it contained language that would grant religious groups exemptions from state and local discrimination laws. Republicans and many Democrats believe the language would allow such groups to discriminate against gays, for example, while still receiving tax dollars.

Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said that would amount to the federal government "authorizing and subsidizing religious discrimination."

"No American citizen should ever have to pass some else's religious test to qualify for a federally funded job," Edwards said.

But many Republicans and some conservative Democrats said the measure should be given a chance to work.

"In my town, religious institutions are the bedrock of a community," said Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Mississippi. He said the initiative would allow people in need "to receive services from those who know them the best."

Daschle says he can't imagine the Senate passing a bill that would allow intolerance.  

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, indicated Thursday the measure would face a tough time.

"I can't imagine that we would pass any bill that would tolerate slipping back into a level of intolerance that would be acceptable in today's society," Daschle said.

Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum said the Bush initiative has been declared dead several times before.

"We really have an obligation to keep our eye on the ball here," Santorum said. "The ball is helping those, the needy, in our society."

Opponents of the faith-based initiative concept say they fear that providing federal funds to religious organizations would violate the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

The White House says safeguards would be in place to ensure religious groups do not use the money to proselytize. Some prominent religious leaders have said the bigger danger is not religion intruding on government, but government intruding on religion.

In January, Bush announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, a new office focused solely on helping religious and community groups to obtain federal tax dollars to fund social service work.

The agency would distribute billions of federal dollars to a variety of religious groups and charities over the next 10 years.

In essence, the groups would be competing with a number of established organizations -- including federal agencies -- for a set amount of tax dollars.

-- CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Snow contributed to this report.

• U.S. Congress
• The White House
• Constituion of the United States
• Executive order creating White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

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