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Bush urges government, foundations to fund faith-based groups

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush called March 9 for governments at all levels to permit faith-based organizations to compete for funds to provide social services to the needy.

In a speech to the second White House National Conference on Faith-based and Community Initiatives, the president reported on the progress made in his faith-based initiative and promised his administration would work with federal, state and local governments to open up grants to such organizations.

The initiative, controversial in some quarters because of concerns about church-state issues, has been a distinguishing mark of Bush’s administration since he took office in 2001. He announced at the conference the federal government made more than $2.1 billion in competitive social service grants to faith-based groups in 2005, the third consecutive year there was an increase in such grants. The 2005 total marked a 7 percent increase over 2004 and 11 percent of all competitive social service grants by the federal government, he said.

Those grants came through seven federal agencies. Earlier in the week, Bush added by executive order a center for faith-based and community initiatives at the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re making progress about creating a level playing field for people to be comfortable in, one, applying for grants and, two, when receiving a grant and then actually getting the money out the door to social service organizations,” Bush said.

The White House is working “to change the culture here in Washington,” the president told social service providers and others gathered at a Washington hotel. “The faith-based program is relatively new, and it takes a while for cultures to change, and we want people throughout the bureaucracies to not fear the involvement of faith programs and community-based programs in the compassionate delivery of help.”

Bush acknowledged “one of the real challenges we have is at the state and local governmental level. We are constantly working with governors and mayors to convince them that having a faith-based office in their respective centers of responsibility will really help improve” their states and cities.

A new study by the White House showed in five programs faith-based organizations received only from 1.7 to 5.5 percent of grants administered by state and local governments. The administration also reported, however, 32 governors -– 20 Republicans and 12 Democrats -– and more than 115 mayors have established offices or liaisons for faith-based and community initiatives.

The White House studied 50 large foundations, finding 20 percent of them barred faith-based organizations from obtaining grants for social services. He encouraged foundations to open their grants to such groups.

“I believe all of us, no matter what level of government we’re in -– federal, state and local -– and I believe all of us, no matter if we’re private or public, ought to allow religious organizations to compete for funding on an equal basis, not for the sake of faith but for the sake of results,” Bush said. “Our job in government is to set goals and to focus on results. If you’re addicted to alcohol, if a faith program is able to get you off alcohol, we ought to say, ‘Hallelujah and thanks,’ at the federal level.”

The White House sponsored its first national conference on these initiatives in June 2004 and has held nearly two dozen regional conferences. One of the reasons for these meetings “is to assure [faith-based social service providers] that the role of the government is to fund, not to micromanage how you run your programs,” Bush said. “I repeat to you -– you can’t be a faith-based program if you don’t practice your faith.”

Some evangelical and other religious leaders have expressed concerns about government control following money to faith-based organizations.

The president not only sought to allay fears about that possibility but also about violations of the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.

“We believe in separation of church and state -– the church shouldn’t be the state and the state shouldn’t be the church,” he said. “But when it comes to social service funding, the use of taxpayers’ money, I think we’re able to meet the admonition of separation of church and state and, at the same time, recognize that faith programs provide an important model of success. They help us achieve certain objectives in our country.”

Some church-state organizations continued to criticize Bush’s faith-based initiative.

“The president seems to have little or no regard for the separation of church and state,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a written release. “This initiative clearly rolls back constitutional safeguards and civil rights protections that people count on. Bush is slashing social service spending across the board and using the faith-based initiative to divert attention from the cuts.”

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, however, applauded Bush’s decision to place a faith-based center in the Department of Homeland Security.

“I know from personal experience during Hurricane Katrina that churches and para-church ministries played an important and irreplaceable role in the relief and recovery from that unprecedented storm,” Perkins said in a written statement. “The president’s orders should improve the government’s response in future natural or manmade disasters. The order will hopefully replace the prevailing mindset in DHS that the wall separating church and state prevents government from working with churches and synagogues to help our citizens.”

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