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Bush opens federal dollars to faith groups | (UPI) -- President George W. Bush used presidential executive orders Thursday to open vast new federal social service and government contract dollars to religious charity organizations that he said had been unfairly barred from participating in some government programs.

Many of the proposals in the two executive orders Bush signed Thursday had been encompassed in legislation that had been blocked by Senate Democrats for nearly a year.

"If a charity is helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on board, or a cross or crescent on the wall, or a religious commitment in the charter," Bush told an audience in Philadelphia. "The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to end," the president said.

Bush flew to Philadelphia to address a White House regional council on faith-based and community initiatives and to visit a program that mentors children whose fathers are imprisoned. He signed one of two orders on the stage of the conference to the enthusiastic applause of an audience of some 1,500 people. Another executive order was signed in Washington earlier.

James Towey, who heads the White House office on faith-based initiatives, told reporters on Air Force One as it headed for Philadelphia that the order Bush signed there is to make clear that groups are not to be barred from federal programs and underscored their right to hire people who participate in their faith or meet their religious standards.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a statement "that Bush is giving his official blessing to publicly funded religious discrimination. He is rolling back all Americans' civil rights and civil liberties." Lynn and others argue that the president's order will mean that federal dollars will be spent through groups that will be allowed to bar employees of differing religious or whose sexuality is not suitable to the church.

"Under this scheme," Lynne charged, "taxpayers will be forced to support churches they don't believe in, and workers will be denied publicly funded jobs because they conform to religious mandates."

Several critics linked their criticism of faith-based orders to remarks by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., about retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-N.C. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said in the a statement that "the GOP is nostalgic for life before civil rights in America," and linked Lott's statements to Bush's faith-based initiative.

But Bush seemed to anticipate this, saying in that "recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized and rightly so."

Towey rejected this sort of criticism in the Air Force One briefing. "I don't think that President Bush is doing today is anything novel. ... The wall he wants to tear down is the wall that separates the poor from effective programs."

Bush later told the audience in Philadelphia that faith-based groups "will never replace government when it comes to helping those in need. Yet government must recognize the power and unique contribution of faith-based groups in every part of our country."

The White House said that the group that mentors children is an example of the importance or clearing the path for federal help for faith-based units. Called the Amachi Mentoring Program, it mentors children whose fathers are imprisoned. Bush, the White House said, cleared the way for the group to receive $67 million in federal authorization for the program in 2001.

According to the Air Force One briefing, there are 1.5 million children across the country who have parents incarcerated in state and federal prisons. "These children are six times more likely than their peers to suffer from problems such as juvenile delinquency, alcohol and substance abuse, and poor academic performance," the White House said. "Without effective intervention, 70 percent of these children will likely follow their parent's path to prison or jail."

The second federal order opens faith-based initiative centers in the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development. These two new centers join existing centers in the Departments of Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Housing and Urban Development Agency.

HUD and the Department of Education, the White House said, are revising regulations in order to make it easier for religious groups to obtain certain contracts.

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