Bush rallies support for 'faith-based' services package
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush took his push for allowing religious groups to receive public funds for social service efforts to a Washington school Tuesday as aides prepared to formally submit the proposal to Congress.
The proposals must overcome opposition from many who fear that providing federal funds to religious organizations would violate the Constitution's ban on the separation of church and state.
"Government, of course, cannot fund and will not fund religious activities," Bush said Tuesday. "But when people provide faith-based services, we will not discriminate against them."
Monday, Bush announced the creation of a new White House office focused solely on helping religious and community groups obtain federal tax dollars to fund social service work. The new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives will report directly to the president.
The agency will be charged with distributing 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.
Tuesday's event at The Fishing School, a religious community center in Washington, is the latest in a series of meetings Bush has planned throughout the week with leaders of spiritual and charitable groups to secure support for the proposal. The plan marks 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 change we seek won't come all at once, from any act of Congress or any executive order signed by the president," Bush said. "Real change starts street by street, heart by heart -- one soul, one conscience at a time."
The legislative portion of the Bush plan was on its way to Capitol Hill after Bush's appearance Tuesday. 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, they include broader tax deductions for Americans who make regular charitable donations.
"I want to be very clear. The office is the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, so we're not just focused on religious organizations. We're interested in achieving important civic purposes," John DiIulio, the director of the new faith-based programs office, told CNN.
DiIulio said the effort would build on existing law -- a portion of the 1996 welfare reform bill -- that allows religious organizations to participate in federal anti-poverty programs.
"We're talking here about not government giving religious organizations money, we're talking really about leveling the playing field and making it possible for these organizations to compete fairly," DiIulio said.
Rabbi Nathan Diament, an Orthodox Jewish leader who supports the proposal, said religious groups must meet the same standards that secular groups do.
"It's also not going to necessarily mandate that the money will go to the religious social service agencies," Diament said. "If none of them apply or none of them qualify, they won't get it."
But Bush's proposal already is drawing fire from others who fear it would lead to government taking sides among religious faiths.
White House officials say safeguards would be in place to make sure the religious groups do not use the money to proselytize. But some prominent religious leaders have said the bigger danger is not religion intruding on government, but government intruding on religion.
"All of a sudden, some bureaucrat says, 'Well, we're going to give you tons of money, but you can't talk about your faith. You can't teach them the Torah, you can't talk about Jesus' or what have you. At that point they have essentially killed the essence of that organization," Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson said.
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