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Home > Research Articles > Bush Order Makes Federal Grants Accessible to Religious Charities

The Washington Post

Sunday, December 15, 2002

BY DANA MILBANK

PHILADELPHIA -- President Bush, seeking to revive his "faith-based initiative" after its legislative version failed in Congress, on Thursday announced a series of regulatory changes to allow religious social-service organizations to receive more government grants and contracts.

In a series of executive orders, Bush directed federal agencies to treat religious and secular charities equally when awarding money, removing regulations that had prohibited church organizations from competing for various federal grants and contracts. The order will continue to ban overt proselytizing in government-funded programs but allows grant recipients to maintain a religious tone and iconography.

"The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end," the president told a group of cheering religious and charitable leaders at a downtown Philadelphia hotel. While vowing to respect the constitutional separation between church and state, Bush declared that "charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission" to receive federal funds.

Immediately criticized by liberals as a violation of civil rights, Bush's orders in fact closely follow the provisions of a compromise reached earlier this year by Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that was never enacted. The executive actions significantly scale back a legislative version drafted by House Republicans with White House support, and the orders avoid the most controversial provisions of that legislation.

Bush's executive orders don't include the tax and funding provisions that were central to his "faith-based" proposal. The White House had proposed various incentives to boost charitable giving, including a costly charitable tax deduction for those who don't itemize their tax returns. Significantly, Bush didn't exempt religious groups that receive government grants from state and local hiring discrimination laws, a protection sought by some religious groups opposed to homosexuality and included in the House version of the legislation.

Sponsors of the Senate version voiced support for Bush's action but said more would have to be done in Congress to supplement the executive orders' limited reach. Lieberman called it "a constructive step forward" but added: "I believe there is much more we can do," including an expansion of funds for charities.

In drafting its new proposal, the White House worked without input from Capitol Hill. Santorum, informed of the details Wednesday night, said he plans to proceed with his legislation so that Bush's executive orders cannot be rescinded by future presidents.

Conservatives applauded the move but said it didn't go far enough. "This is not the whole thing -- it's the first drive of the second half and it's a touchdown," said Marvin Olasky, who helped craft Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda.