WASHINGTON - President Bush took his first step yesterday toward giving religious organizations and private charities access to billions of dollars in federal funds, an outreach effort designed to facilitate services for needy Americans.
The initiative could become a pivotal test of how far the nation's laws mandating separation of church and state can stretch.
"Compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government," the president said as he signed two executive orders to implement his proposal.
The first order creates a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that will report directly to Bush and work to clear barriers preventing religious and charitable groups from receiving federal grants.
The second order directs creation of similar offices in five Cabinet departments - Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education.
Bush promised during the presidential campaign that he would fund and empower religious and community groups that provide outreach services, ranging from counseling for prison inmates to meals for hungry children.
At the heart of the pledge - the centerpiece of Bush's message of "compassionate conservatism" - was his contention that government could not solve all social ills but could provide money for groups, even religious ones, that were working to relieve some of those problems.
"There are still deep needs and real suffering in the shadow of America's affluence, problems like addiction and abandonment and gang violence, domestic violence, mental illness and homelessness," Bush said as he signed the orders in the White House Indian Treaty Room. "We are called by conscience to respond."
Bush administration officials said they expect challenges to the plan to disburse federal money to faith-based groups. Such questions were quickly raised yesterday.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the Bush effort "the single greatest assault on church-state separation in modern American history."
"Funneling billions of tax dollars to houses of worship is certain to lead to lawsuits," Lynn said. "The First Amendment was intended to create a separation between religion and government, not a massive new bureaucracy that unites the two."
Bush met yesterday with leaders from dozens of organizations of various faiths and political orientations that could receive federal support under his plan, including the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, the Republican Jewish Coalition and lesser-known church or neighborhood-based groups from around the country.
The president said his goal is to ensure that no such group is blocked from receiving government money, no matter how outwardly faith-driven it is, so long as the federal funds are not directly paying to advance religion.
"We will not fund the religious activities of any group," Bush said. "But when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them."
The president plans to send legislation to Congress today that will further detail his initiative.
He said yesterday that faith-based groups would be able to receive federal money only if there are secular organizations that provide the same services. And aides said the legislation would require that groups not discriminate against people who are not religious.
Court challenges to the Bush proposal are likely and its reception on Capitol Hill is uncertain. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Texas Democrat, told the Associated Press that he fears religious groups could discriminate in a way that federal programs never before allowed.
"I don't want Bob Jones University to be able to take federal dollars for an alcohol treatment program and put out a sign that says no Catholics or Jews need apply here for a federally funded job," Edwards said.
Even staunch supporters of Bush's plan acknowledged that marriages between government and religion inevitably become murky. One-time Watergate figure Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, one of the nation's largest outreach programs for prison inmates, said his programs have received state grants from Texas, Iowa and Kansas.
In Michigan, however, officials blocked Colson from government money because he only hires Christians on his staff. Colson said he closed down his program in that state, but that he could likely receive federal funds under Bush's plan.
"We only hire people who believe what we believe," Colson said. "To be on our staff, they have to be committed Christians who take a statement of faith." He stressed that the Bible services and worship sessions included in his outreach programs are voluntary for participants.
The president yesterday named John J. DiIulio Jr., a political science professor from the University of Pennsylvania, to lead the new faith-based office in the White House.