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President’s Faith-based Initiative Draws Fire and Praise from Jews

December 13, 2002
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Several Jewish groups reacted with “alarm” and “serious disappointment” to President Bush’s executive orders issued Thursday that expands federal funding for faith-based groups.

But Orthodox groups hailed them as an important step forward.

In announcing his faith-based initiative here on Tuesday, Bush said the order is intended to correct what he called the “discrimination of religious charities by the federal government.”

At a conference sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Bush signed an executive order directing “all federal agencies to follow the principle of equal treatment in awarding social-service grants.”

“If a charity is helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross or a crescent on the wall,” Bush told the multiethnic crowd gathered at the Philadelphia Marriott hotel.

“The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end.”

Since the early days of his presidential campaign, Bush has called for federal funding of faith-based social service programs.

But the office of faith-based initiatives, which the president created when he took office last year, has had a rocky beginning.

Critics, including most Jewish groups, view the initiative as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Its first director, University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio Jr. quit after less than eight months at the post, citing difficulty in getting measures to help religious charities passed in Congress.

Now, instead of seeking congressional approval of his policies in this arena — where he encountered resistance — the president has decided to implement changes to the federal government through executive orders.

“I will continue to work with Congress on this agenda, but the needs of our country are urgent and, as president, I have an authority I intend to use,” Bush said.

“Many acts of discrimination against faith-based groups are committed by executive-branch agencies. As leader of the executive branch, I’m going to make some changes, effective today.”

Bush’s order directs federal agencies to take steps to ensure that all policies are consistent with equal- treatment principles.

Specifically, the action ensures that no organization applying for grants will be discriminated against based on religion, and that no beneficiary of federally funded social services may be discriminated against based on religion.

In his speech, Bush accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of having “a history of discrimination against faith-based groups.

“It will revise its policy on emergency relief so that religious nonprofit groups can qualify for assistance after disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes,” Bush assured the crowd.

It was a promise that the Orthodox Union welcomed.

According to the organization, after a severe earthquake two years ago, the Seattle Hebrew Academy in Washington state was denied emergency funds from FEMA because of the school’s religious affiliation.

“We are gratified” that Bush endorsed “the principle of government neutrality towards religion as opposed to government hostility towards religion,” said Nathan Diament, director of the organization’s Institute for Public Affairs.

“President Bush has rightly recognized this policy governing FEMA, and those like it as wrongheaded and has reformed them to ensure that the federal government treats faith institutions fairly.”

But most Jewish groups objected to Tuesday’s announcement.

The Anti-Defamation League expressed serious concern that the orders will “allow taxpayer dollars to fund job discrimination and proselytizing.”

Jewish groups objected most vehemently to the provision that allows religion to be taken into account when hiring for a government-funded position.

Expressing “alarm” at Tuesday’s announcement, the American Jewish Committee said Bush’s action, “which bypasses congressional action, advances the use of taxpayer dollars to fund social services provided by religious institutions without adequate church-state safeguards and anti-discrimination protections.”

Hadassah’s national president, Bonnie Lipton, said in a statement that “by directing federal funds to sectarian organizations that discriminate in hiring, the government not only weakens our civil rights, but undermines the principles of separation of church and state.”

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