Wednesday, March 3, 2004

LOS ANGELES — President Bush yesterday said it was “essential” that the government reinforce the “vital work that faith-based organizations can do,” but tried to quell fears of liberals and civil libertarians that church and state would get too cozy.

Mr. Bush attended the White House Conference of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Los Angeles Convention Center, using his own story of quitting drinking and growing stronger in his Christian faith as an example others could follow.

Pointing to a friend in the audience, Mr. Bush said, “We used to drink too much, and our hearts changed and then we quit. That is a tried-and-true formula. The problem is that government isn’t good at changing hearts.”

Mr. Bush spoke often of God and the “powerful” changes others have experienced in their lives by accepting the help of faith-based organizations.

“What we are talking about here are miracles,” Mr. Bush said, as an attendee yelled “yes” from the audience. “All faiths have heard a universal call. Using faith to help your communities is good public policy.”

The Bush administration gave nearly 500 faith-based programs $477 million in 2002 and 680 programs $568 million last year.

Mr. Bush said he was frustrated when he first took office that Congress wouldn’t advance his faith-based policies, so he started the initiative on his own by executive order in 2001.

“We need to expand” the program, Mr. Bush said. “There are more souls to be saved, and the government’s got the resources.”

But the president made it clear that his programs keep government from interfering with religion, and religion from improperly infiltrating government.

“There are rules. You can’t use money to proselytize,” Mr. Bush said to a few giggles in the audience of about 500. “But you can use federal money to help a person quit drinking. You can’t say, ‘Only Methodists allowed.’ You can say. ‘All drunks are welcome.’”

Some administration critics have expressed concern about Mr. Bush’s public professions of faith, especially in light of his endorsement of a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage, a cause pushed by, among others, religious conservatives.

After delivering the speech, Mr. Bush attended two fund-raisers, one at the historic Shrine Auditorium and one at the private residence of Jerry and Margie Perenchio.

Three anti-Bush protesters appeared outside the convention center, one wearing a Bush mask and dressed in a blue suit with an American flag sign that said “Stop Me.” Many more protesters were expected to show up at the Shrine Auditorium.

Tomorrow, Mr. Bush travels to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he will meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox over the weekend.

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