Bush takes financial leap of faith
Churches eligible for federal funds

By Chuck Lindell
Cox News Service
Dec. 13, 2002

WASHINGTON - Skirting a reluctant Congress on a delicate church-state question, President Bush ordered all federal agencies Thursday to let religious charities compete for federal money and contracts.

The order gives faith-based groups immediate access to billions of dollars in social-service money, fulfilling a key Bush campaign promise with the stroke of a pen after the U.S. Senate bottled up a similar measure this summer.

Civil libertarians and several Democrats decried Bush's executive order as unilateral and a dangerous breach of church-state separation, but the president promised additional measures in the coming year, as well as special emphasis on the issue in January's State of the Union speech.

"When decisions are made on public funding, we should not focus on the religion you practice; we should focus on the results you deliver," Bush said.

"I will continue to work with Congress on this agenda, but the needs of our country are urgent and, as president, I have an authority I intend to use," he said. "Many acts of discrimination against faith-based groups are committed by executive branch agencies, and, as the leader of the executive branch, I'm going to make some changes, effective today."

With the post-election Congress in Republican control, Bush is following through on the administration's quiet promise to pursue a conservative-based social agenda on topics from abortion to school vouchers. Expanding the role of religious groups in providing social services was near the top of that list.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is considering a legal challenge to the new rules. Though the executive order bars organizations from using government money to support "inherently religious" activities, such as worship and religious instruction, it also affirms those groups' right to hire and fire based on religious considerations, said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based watchdog group.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution Subcommittee, said Americans should fear Thursday's order.

"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," said Nadler, D-N.Y.

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