- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2000

President-elect George W. Bush yesterday pledged to create a White House "office of faith-based programs" while meeting in Austin, Texas, with religious leaders to discuss private alternatives to welfare.
Mr. Bush said he envisions the new office as "a place where people will feel comfortable" to offer suggestions and complaints about the role of religious organizations in programs that the government traditionally administers, he said.
"I look forward to the chance of healing a nation that has been divided as a result of the election," Mr. Bush said. "Ours will be an administration that focuses on what's right for America, not what's right for a political party."
About one-third of the ministers in attendance were black, despite criticism from black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson that Mr. Bush's victory in the election "disenfranchised" black voters in Florida and elsewhere. Mr. Jackson was not invited to the conference.
The Rev. Herb Lusk, a Democrat and black Baptist minister from Philadelphia, attended the meeting and said he was glad that Mr. Jackson wasn't there.
"Reverend is wrong," Mr. Lusk said of Mr. Jackson. "He has too much protest and not enough program. Coming into the meeting in a protest mode would not have been productive. We need to get together and go to work.
"I call upon all black political officials and community leaders to get with the program," Mr. Lusk said in a telephone interview. "We have an elected president. It's madness to talk about protesting an elected president."
The meeting included the Rev. Floyd Flake, who left Congress in 1997 after six terms to serve full time as pastor of his church in New York City. Mr. Flake, a Democrat who supports school choice, has been mentioned as a candidate for education secretary in the Bush administration.
Also in attendance was former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who might be tapped to lead the White House effort.
"He has my vote," Mr. Lusk said. "He's a solid guy and an honorable man. He has a feel for the cities."
The president-elect sought to mend fences during the session, pointing out that only about 8 percent of blacks voted for him.
"Not everybody here voted for me," Mr. Bush joked. "I was hoping to find one or two."
Few specifics were offered yesterday about how the office would work. Mr. Bush portrayed the agency's role as to enable faith-based organizations to have access to federal funds, although perhaps not directly, and ensure that religious organizations are not hindered by government interference.
The plan is part of Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservative" philosophy that would offer a federal tax credit for donors who give to charities that work with the poor. It would also extend the deduction for taxpayers who don't file itemized returns.
Mr. Bush also would remove restrictions on religious groups that provide federally funded social services.
The president-elect said the new office would field "complaints of either inaction, or too much government action, which will hamper people from doing their job."
"There's a role as well beyond government … and a good place to start in America is to rally the people of good faith and good heart, who understand there is a power larger than themselves, who hear the universal call to love a neighbor like they'd like to be loved themselves, and who don't sit on the sidelines but put their faith and their love and their compassion into action," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Lusk said the office of faith-based programs "will begin to legitimize groups that have been doing good work for years and don't get recognized." He anticipates that religious groups would have access to federal funds under the plan.
Asked if he had concerns about church-state prohibitions, Mr. Lusk said: "Those concerns are always there. We'll be able to get around those issues by putting some safety valves in place."
Mr. Bush said the session was "not a political meeting." It was held in First Baptist Church in Austin; reporters were not allowed into the meeting until the 90-minute session was nearly finished.
"This is a meeting to begin a dialogue about how best to help faith-based programs change people's lives; how best government can encourage, as opposed to discourage, faith-based programs," Mr. Bush said. "My hope is that when people who may not have supported me get to know me, they realize that I am just as intent upon being a good president for them as for those folks who supported me."
"I've got a lot of work to do," Mr. Bush said. "I understand that. But you know what? I welcome the opportunity."

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