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Mar 3 2005
Bush: Lift Roadblocks to Faith-Based Help Programs

Bush: Lift Roadblocks to Faith-Based Help Programs

Tue Mar 1, 5:24 PM ET Politics - Reuters

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush (news - web sites) on Tuesday urged Congress and state governors to lift "roadblocks" to faith-based initiatives to help the needy, despite criticism they blur the line between government and religion.

"Government has got to find ways to empower those whose mission is based upon love, in order to help those who need love find love in society," Bush said at a conference.

He started faith-based initiatives during his first term to provide federal funds to religious and community organizations for programs to help addicts, victims of domestic abuse, troubled youths, and others.

Some critics say providing government funding to religious organizations crosses the boundary of separation between church and state and is a bid to court conservatives.

"Unfortunately, there are some roadblocks -- such as the culture inside government at the federal, state and local level that is unfriendly to faith-based organizations," Bush said.

He urged Congress to clarify in legislation that accepting federal funding would not jeopardize the rights of religious groups to only hire within their faith.

He said that was included in the Civil Rights Act, "but Congress has sent conflicting signals about whether that right still applies when a group gets federal funding."

"And so I want this issue resolved," Bush said. "And if we can't get it done this year, I'll consider measures that can be taken through executive action," he added.

"Right now it is a snarled confusing web of contradictory laws that is not serving the poor," Jim Towey, head of the White House faith-based initiatives, told reporters in a conference call.

The House planned to vote on Wednesday on a jobs training bill, which Americans United for Separation of Church and State said includes a provision that would allow faith-based groups to "engage in government-funded religious discrimination in jobs."

The White House said the amount of funding to faith-based programs from five agencies in fiscal 2004 rose to about $1.33 billion, or 9.8 percent of available funding, from about $1.17 billion or 8.1 percent of available funding in fiscal 2003. That does not include other funding from USAID or the Agriculture Department.

Some state and local governments have received federal grants but not opened them up to competitive bidding, Bush said, adding that he urged governors during meetings in Washington this week to set up faith-based offices to help distribute funding. Currently 24 states have such offices and Kentucky, Georgia and Minnesota are considering opening them.

Bush also proposed expanding the ability of individuals to choose which program would best meet their needs, possibly by using vouchers or coupons.

"There's all kinds of ways to quit drinking, but one of the most effective ways to quit drinking is for a person to make a choice to go to a place that changes your heart," said Bush, who stopped drinking alcohol over a decade ago.

Towey acknowledged that it would be difficult to implement individual choice for programs for the mentally ill, but could be done through a guardian.

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