- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

President Bush yesterday said the federal government, in its zeal to maintain a separation of church and state, has been punishing religious institutions a policy he pledged to reverse.
"The days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end," Mr. Bush told thousands of national and international leaders gathered in Washington for the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
"We do not prescribe any prayer; we welcome all prayer," Mr. Bush said. "This is the tradition of our nation, and it will be the standard of my administration. We will respect every creed. We will honor the diversity of our country and the deep convictions of our people."
Mr. Bush earlier this week created a White House office to coordinate relations with religion-based charities. He has proposed a package of legislation to boost the strength of religious charities and to give them a greater role in delivering social services, such as food banks, day care and drug treatment.
Mr. Bush used his remarks yesterday to at once push his initiatives and to soothe critics, who worry that his plans will entangle the federal government with religion and might even violate the Constitution.
"Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can welcome them as partners instead of resenting them as rivals," Mr. Bush said. "Our plan will not favor religious institutions over nonreligious institutions. As president, I am interested in what is constitutional, and I am interested in what works."
Critics, however, were unmoved. Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Mr. Bush's remarks were further proof that the president is mixing politics and religion.
"It was very inappropriate to use a religious gathering as a platform for his political agenda," Mr. Conn said. "That prayer breakfast has always been, or been billed at least, as nonpartisan."
The prayer breakfast began a half-century ago when members of Congress gathered to pray for President Eisenhower. Every president since has spoken at the event, which has grown to an international attraction. In attendance this year were the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Macedonia and Rwanda, along with the prime minister of the Slovak Republic and two former Pakistani prime ministers.
Organizers of the breakfast refused to release a complete list of those attending, saying it is a private event and they do not wish to publicize it unduly.
Mr. Bush did not meet with any of the foreign leaders present at the breakfast, White House spokesmen said.
Although the event is officially nonpartisan, it has not always been nonpolitical. In the midst of the scandal over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, for example, President Clinton used the prayer breakfasts in 1998 and 1999 to make conciliatory statements, although he did not expressly apologize.
Those remarks were widely credited with helping the president shore up his public image and firm up support from congressional Democrats considering whether to remove him from office.
"President Clinton's policies and even personal practices seemed to be in constant conflict with the principles promoted at this event," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, before the breakfast this year. "It should be quite different with President Bush, who appears in every way to be in greater harmony with what the breakfast stands for."
Mr. Clinton's troubles did, however, linger not far below the surface at yesterday's breakfast. Mr. Bush used the occasion to call for a return of "civility" in Washington, a line he used repeatedly in the campaign as an argument for voters to purge the last vestiges of the scandal-ridden Clinton-Gore administration.
"Civility does not require us to abandon deeply held beliefs; civility does not demand casual creeds and colorless convictions," Mr. Bush said. "Americans have always believed that civility and firm resolve could live easily with one another, but civility does mean that our public debate ought to be free from bitterness and anger and rancor and ill-will."
"I'm under no illusion that civility will triumph in this city all at once old habits die hard," Mr. Bush said. "And sometimes they never die at all. But I can only pledge to you this: that I will do my very best to promote civility and ask for the same in return."
Mr. Bush also used the opportunity to discuss his own faith, which he has credited with turning him away from a life of heavy drinking and wild behavior.
"It has sustained me in moments of success and in moments of disappointment," the new president said. "Without it, I'd be a different person and, without it, I doubt I'd be here today."
Vice President Richard B. Cheney also spoke briefly before the gathering, but he left aside policy questions in favor of an entirely spiritual discussion.
"Every great and meaningful achievement in this life requires the active involvement of the One who placed us here for a reason, who knows our names and cares about what we do, and is ever deserving of our trust and our devotion," Mr. Cheney told the crowd.

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