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January 30, 2001 Single-Page Format

Nudging Church-State Line, Bush Invites Religious Groups to Seek Federal Aid


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Text: Bush on the Creation of a White House Office Tied to Religion (Jan. 30, 2001)
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Can President Bush win bipartisan support?

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 Flanked by an array of religious leaders, President Bush today signed two executive orders that throw open the doors of government to religious and community groups as part of a broad effort to refashion the way government delivers social services.

The moment was not merely one of those "thousand points of light" photo opportunities favored by the former Bush administration, in which notable do-gooders were ushered into the White House for a presidential handshake and five minutes of recognition.

Instead, what the current President Bush promised religious leaders today was far more extraordinary, a new version of "reinventing government," with a religious cast.

The move is likely to be applauded by many religious leaders and Americans who believe that faith has long been the missing ingredient in government programs for the homeless, drug addicts, prisoners, the mentally ill and the unemployed.

But it will undoubtedly stir up a barbed constitutional debate: about the government playing favorites with religions; about tax dollars spent on programs that discriminate in hiring and firing employees; and about how far public agencies should go in policing religious organizations that are accused of abuses.

Mr. Bush named Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis, and John J. DiIulio Jr., a University of Pennsylvania professor, to White House posts that will scour federal agencies for every opportunity to lift regulatory barriers that previously prevented government money and contracts from being channeled to religious groups.

Mr. DiIulio will head the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which will serve as a liaison to nonprofit groups and identify exemplary programs that can serve as national models. Mr. Bush also established centers at the Departments of Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development to ensure that they cooperate with religious and secular nonprofit organizations.

The president is expected to announce more details of his initiative on Tuesday at the Fishing School, a religion-based program for youth in Washington founded by a retired police officer. One of Mr. Bush's primary proposals is to allow all taxpayers to deduct charitable gifts, even those who do not now itemize deductions.

"When we see social needs in America," Mr. Bush said today, "my administration will look first to faith- based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives."

Mr. Bush's plan will meet resistance from civil libertarians, and even from some within religious organizations.

"This is going to be an all-out battle," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "A lot of people see this as one of the biggest violations of church-state separation that we've seen in American history."

It will not be a battle of the faithful versus the faithless. The administration may be surprised, critics say, when the battle is joined by some religious groups and whole denominations that sense danger ahead. They fear that when government officials start poring over proposals from religious groups, the government ultimately favors one program, and therefore one religion, over another. Mr. DiIulio said today that the White House would try to avoid such conflicts by using empirical methods to determine which programs have a track record of success.

"We will work with what is effective," Mr. DiIulio said in an interview, and added, paraphrasing the Bible, "And ye shall know this and us by our works."

Already, the White House's religious predilections are being scrutinized based on who was invited, and who not, to the meeting there today. In his comments, Mr. Bush repeatedly mentioned the diversity of the group. He was joined by five prominent black preachers and a Muslim imam. To his right was a Catholic nun, to his left an Orthodox Jew. Gathered behind him were about 20 Christian leaders and pastors, many of them evangelicals.

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