- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

President Bush moved yesterday to make good on one of his central campaign promises, creating an office in the White House to coordinate federal cooperation with private and religious charities.
"When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives," Mr. Bush said before signing the executive order to create the office. "We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them."
Mr. Bush also signed an executive order that will begin to remove bureaucratic barriers to cooperation with religious charities. It creates offices in five federal departments Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education to examine policies and regulations that inhibit such cooperation.
Mr. Bush and his aides denied vigorously that his initiatives would breach the wall of separation between the government and churches, as critics have complained. Mr. Bush said that government money could not be used directly for religious purposes, such as missionary work, and that religiously based organizations would have to compete with comparable secular organizations for grants.
"This delivery of social services must be results-oriented and should value the bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality," Mr. Bush wrote in his executive order.
Spokesman Ari Fleischer was pressed by reporters in Washington yesterday about the public reaction to open cooperation between churches and the federal government. He said the administration believes the policy will receive overwhelming public support, provided it is implemented in a fair way.
"I think the American people recognize that we need to be sensitive to make certain that there is no proselytizing, for example," he said. "However, the American people also recognize that there are social problems that are not getting solved by the government and that there is a vital role that we can play, as a compassionate society, to help those who are less fortunate through faith-based programs."
Mr. Fleischer said the president's plan will also widen opportunities for secular nonprofit organizations, which were previously overshadowed by government-run programs.
"And so it's much broader than simply faith-based … it's a multipronged effort that focuses on community, nonprofit and faith-based to deliver social services," he said.
Mr. Bush named University of Pennsylvania professor John J. DiIulio Jr. to head the new White House agency, known as the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He also named former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, a pioneer of government privatization efforts, to advise him on relationships with private charities.
Mr. Goldsmith will head the already-established Corporation for National Service. In that role, he will travel the nation trying to encourage charitable donations and working to connect companies with nonprofit organizations.
"It is one of the great goals of my administration to invigorate the spirit of involvement and citizenship," Mr. Bush said at a ceremony attended by dozens of religious leaders. "We will encourage faith-based and community programs without changing their mission. We will help all in their work to change hearts while keeping a commitment to pluralism."
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Bush promised to "mobilize the armies of compassion" by making it easier for religiously based charities to compete for federal money. He mentioned it at almost every campaign stop and made it a point in his inaugural address and his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
Mr. Bush said religious organizations can provide a wide variety of services that would otherwise be provided by local and federal government, including child and adult day care, drug treatment, food banks, and homeless shelters.
There are some elements of Mr. Bush's plan that will need congressional approval. He will send a package of proposed legislation to Capitol Hill today to expand on the executive orders he signed yesterday.
Mr. Fleischer refused to detail the president's legislative package, but he said a key element will be to make it easier for taxpayers to deduct the charitable deductions from their taxes.
Currently, only taxpayers who itemize their deductions, using the longer and more complex 1040 form, can claim charitable deductions. Mr. Bush will propose allowing taxpayers who use the short form often lower-income taxpayers who do not own their own homes to deduct charitable donations.
"People should be able to itemize their charitable deductions, but that doesn't mean that those who aren't in a position where they itemize should be denied a deduction of their own," Mr. Fleischer said. "So this extends one of the best benefits of our society to those who give to charity. We shouldn't divide people."
Republican congressional leaders say Mr. Bush's plans are a natural extension of previous bills passed by Congress. The sweeping welfare-reform law of 1996 gave nonprofits of all sorts a greater role in providing social services and last year's "community renewal" act allowed greater participation in drug treatment programs by religiously based groups.
"Community and faith-based organizations play a critical role in helping and providing services in our nation's poorest communities," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said. "President Bush's proposal will empower these groups and help them to play an even greater role in America's most at-risk neighborhoods. This initiative will establish an important principle: that government can play a partnership role in helping America become a more civil society, but that it does not have to be the only partner."
House Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican, said he would host a "summit" with religious leaders in April to discuss the new role of faith-based charities.
Religious organizations also applauded Mr. Bush's move yesterday.
"Faith-based initiatives not only work better than their secular counterparts, they do so at a fraction of the cost," said William Donahue, president of the Catholic League. "It is the spiritual dimension of the programs that accounts for their success."
Mr. Donahue called on Mr. Bush to expand his initiative to "establish a new partnership between church and state, one that affords greater room for religious organizations to exercise their spiritual component."
Liberal civil libertarians, however, attacked his program as a "radical attack on the Constitution."
"Bush's plan is the single greatest assault on church-state separation in modern American history… . The First Amendment was intended to create a separation between religion and government, not a massive new bureaucracy that unites the two," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Even if government money is not used directly to fund religious activities, he said, the religious organizations will be able to use their social service programs to bring needy persons in contact with religious programs.
"People shouldn't have to go to a church they may not believe in to get help from the government," he said. "Placing people in need in this kind of position is just plain wrong."
John Godfrey and Larry Witham contributed to this article

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