- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

President Bush yesterday enlisted civil rights icon Rosa Parks and the U.S. Conference of Mayors in his fight to give religious groups the right to provide social services, a plan that is stalled in Congress by liberal Democrats.
Critics denounced the move as an assault on the constitutional separation of church and state. But Mr. Bush said his "faith-based" initiative will help inner-city children overcome the "evil" that permeates their lives.
"America can be saved — one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time," the president told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Detroit. "We are funding the good works of the faithful, not faith itself."
Mr. Bush singled out Rosedale Park Baptist Church in a run-down neighborhood of Detroit as an example of a religious organization that has successfully tackled social ills. The church runs a program to help troubled black youths stay out of crime.
"The pastor of Rosedale, Dennis Talbert, is fond of quoting a passage from the book of Romans: 'When I want to do good, evil is right there with me,'" the president said. "That accurately describes the situation of many of our children in America. Evil is what his church is fighting against, with impressive results."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, dismissed Mr. Bush's speech as a doomed attempt to jump-start the faith-based initiative, which is languishing in Congress.
"This is just smoke and mirrors from an administration desperate to rescue a failing initiative," Mr. Lynn said. "No matter how they dress it up, they can't make this bad idea presentable.
"The Bush plan allows publicly funded religious discrimination, could force religion on families in need, and threatens to entangle our houses of worship with government," Mr. Lynn said. "It's a bad deal all around."
But Mr. Bush pointed out that religious organizations already help the federal government provide social services to troubled Americans. He suggested critics such as Mr. Lynn seek not just the scrapping of his plan to expand such arrangements, but the abolition of existing programs.
"You know that child care vouchers are used at houses of worship," the president said. "You know the Head Start programs are often found in religious settings.
"You know that many public services in our cities are provided through Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army. You know that many government dollars in Medicaid and Medicare are used in religious hospitals."
He added: "Do the critics of this approach really want to end these programs? I certainly hope not. It would be bad for America."
Mr. Lynn told The Washington Times he does not seek the abolition of these programs, which he said respect the line between church and state. But he said Mr. Bush's plan will openly promote proselytism, a charge the White House denies.
Still, Mr. Bush has agreed to tighten restrictions on the spending of taxpayer dollars by religious groups in an effort to shore up sagging support on Capitol Hill for the initiative. Bush officials are trying to cajole House members into pushing the measure through committees this week. The initiative has not yet been introduced in the Senate, where even greater concessions may be needed.
The president is determined to rekindle interest in his plan in a series of events this week. Conservative Republicans are cheering the push, in part because it flushes out liberal Democrats who oppose the faith-based initiative, which is popular among many Americans. Even former Vice President Al Gore emulated the Bush proposal during last year's presidential campaign.
The renewed focus on the faith-based initiative also helps the president counter the Democratic effort this week to push for a patients' bill of rights, which conservative Republicans oppose.
To give yesterday's speech added heft, Mr. Bush first collected the endorsement of Mrs. Parks, whose legendary refusal to give up her bus seat to a white person elevated her to the status of civil rights icon. The endorsement was particularly disheartening to liberals, who for eight years cheered former President Bill Clinton's frequent references to Mrs. Parks.
The president also secured an overt endorsement from the Conference of Mayors, many of whom are Democrats struggling to cope with burgeoning social ills in large urban centers.
"The United States Conference of Mayors strongly endorses President Bush's efforts to highlight and increase public awareness about the key roles these groups play within our society, and to increase both public and private support for effective community-serving groups," the conference said in a proclamation.
The president was clearly pleased by the vote of confidence. "Together, we're going to convince the skeptics," Mr. Bush told the mayors. "Together, we're going to put the federal government and local government squarely on the side of America's armies of compassion."
Mr. Bush sought to characterize his plan not as a chance for religious groups to expand their control over federal resources, but as a spirited defense of the constitutional right to freedom of religion. "State-based organizations should be allowed to compete for government funds without hiding their religious orientation," he said.

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