With the 2004 general election approaching and his standing in public opinion polls diminishing, President George W. Bush took aggressive actions in September to please an important constituency by advancing his much touted "faith-based" initiative.
At a White House press briefing on Sept. 22, Jim Towey, director of Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Office, announced the creation of regulations and proposals for new ones to implement the "faith-based" initiative, which is popular among many Religious Right leaders. The Washington Post described the announcements as "the most significant steps so far in Bush's plan to pursue his 'faith-based' initiative through administrative power" after encountering significant resistance in the Senate.
Bush's initiative has been stymied in Congress. To the chagrin of even some of his supporters, the president refuses to compromise on his insistence that church-state separation is not undermined by direct funding of pervasively religious groups and that those religious groups must be permitted to operate federally funded social services without abiding by anti-discrimination laws. Thus, the president has had to fall back on issuing executive orders, which could some day be rescinded by a different administration.
In Dec. 2002, Bush ordered federal agencies, including the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, to create or alter regulations to increase access to federal funding for religious groups offering social services for the nation's less fortunate. At the September press briefing, Towey told reporters that four regulations had been finalized and six more proposed and that his boss would continue employing "every single tool that he has" to move the faith-based initiative forward.
"The President's faith-based initiative is making progress because we're seeing more and more organizations seeking to compete for federal grants to provide these services that they know how to provide very well," Towey told the reporters gathered at the White House. "So these six new regulations, and the four finalized ones, represent a continued march by the President in the faith-based initiative's effort to spread compassion in our country and make sure that the most effective programs are funded; he wants to see results.
"This is not about funding religion," Towey continued, "but about funding results and identifying the most effective providers and knocking down the wall that separates the poor from these programs."
A reporter at the briefing asked Towey whether the new Department of Labor regulations favored religious groups by allowing them to receive public funds even if they discriminate in hiring. Secular social service providers would still be barred from discrimination in hiring in order to receive federal funds.
As has been his wont, Towey defended the faith-based agenda's demand that religious groups that discriminate in hiring should not be barred from receiving federal funds to operate social services.
"In any employment decision, there's discrimination," Towey declared. "The World Wildlife Fund will make discrimination based on people they hire who share their tenets and beliefs. Universities hire smart people."
Towey was joined at the press gathering by the secretaries of Labor and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the deputy secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). All of them announced their finalized or proposed regulations and the amounts of federal funds that would be available to church-based and community groups.
HHS Deputy Secretary Claude Allen said regulations are now in place to allow religious groups to apply for nearly $20 billion in social service grants dealing with substance abuse, welfare and mental health. Allen also announced the continuation of the Compassion Capital Fund, which provides grants to smaller religious and community charities seeking to run social service programs. …