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Bush order: ‘unfair treatment’ of religious charities must end

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush issued orders Dec. 12 to halt what he described as the “unfair treatment of religious charities by the federal government.”

In the wake of Congress’ failure to pass his faith-based initiative in the last session, Bush signed an executive order permitting organizations to enter into contracts with the federal government while maintaining their religious identity and being able to hire employees in accordance with their beliefs.

The president also instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to change its policy to enable faith-based social service organizations to receive disaster relief aid. Currently, religious, nonprofit organizations are not able to receive such aid when a building is damaged by a natural disaster, even though secular nonprofits are.

In addition, he signed an order establishing faith-based and community initiative offices in the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development. Nearly two years ago he opened such offices in the departments of Education, Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development.

“If a charity is helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross or a crescent on the wall, or a religious commitment in the charter,” Bush told an audience of faith-based volunteers in Philadelphia. “The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end.”

He noted that “many acts of discrimination against faith-based groups are committed” by federal agencies.

“When decisions are made on public funding, we should not focus on the religion you practice; we should focus on the results you deliver,” the president said. “[G]overnment can and should support social services provided by religious people, as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith. And when government gives that support, charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their charter or compromise their mission.”

Bush’s order on equal treatment for charities enables faith-based organizations to display religious symbols in their buildings, to select board members based on their beliefs and to consider faith when making employment decisions. It also prohibits government funds from being used in “inherently religious” exercises such as worship and religious education.

The government, however, “has no business endorsing a religious creed or directly funding religious worship or religious teaching,” the president said.

Critics charged Bush with violating the First Amendment, however.

“Bush is giving his official blessing to publicly funded religious discrimination,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Under this scheme, taxpayers will be forced to support churches they don’t believe in, and workers will be denied publicly funded jobs because they don’t conform to religious mandates.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D.-N.Y., said, “The American people should be very scared of what the president has done today. Now, the president is saying that this country will be better off if we junk the religious freedom protections of the First Amendment and allow religious organizations to use federal money to blackball people on the basis of their religion.”

Others, however, commended the president’s actions.

“This executive order does not create a constitutional crisis but merely removes barriers for churches and religious organizations and ensures that they will not be discriminated against in consideration for federal funds,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. “This is a sound and constitutional approach to ensuring equal treatment for churches and religious organizations.”

The faith-based initiative can be carried out in ways that protect the Constitution and expand services to the needy, Southern Baptist church-state leader Richard Land has said. There need to be appropriate safeguards, he said.

Those include a secular alternative to the religious social service, no government funds for religious exercises and voluntary religious activities for recipients of services. Land also has endorsed vouchers to be used by the beneficiaries, who would choose the social service agency.

He has warned religious groups to be wary. “Partnering with the government in this way will increase your exposure to government intervention in your ministries,” Land said. “Is working with the government to obey our biblical mandate to help the poor, the hungry and the hurting worth that exposure?”

Bush said he would continue to work with Congress to enact legislation supporting his faith-based proposal.

In his speech, Bush cited examples of discrimination against religious charities by the federal government, including:

— The Victory Center Rescue Mission in Iowa being threatened with losing $100,000 in federal funds because its board was not secular enough. The center pulled out of the federal program.

— The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty being told by federal officials it could not seek a grant because the word “Jewish” is in its name.