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A lasting legacy?

National | FAITH-BASED INITIATIVE: President touts a signature issue, but without legislation, its future may rise or fall based upon the occupant of the Oval Office

Issue: "Iraq: Present and past," June 12, 2004

President Bush may get air time when he talks about terror and the Middle East, but he grabbed face time last week to speak to 2,000 members of faith-based groups about their work to bring a ­different kind of peace.

Until now the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community ­Initiatives has offered a dozen regional conferences. This one-day event marked the first national conference, training groups to work with a government that once fenced out faith-based groups. With a crowd shouting "Amen!" and "We love you!" through the president's speech, the conference provided a perfect way to rally faith-based groups before the November election.

That this was a religion-friendly conference was clear from the start: Nuns, collared priests, Jewish men in yarmulkes, and a handful of Muslims mingled. Rick Warren, pastor and bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life, gave one of the opening prayers.

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The president kept such diversity in mind when he spoke for 40 minutes: "When you hear me talk about faith, I'm talking about all faiths, whether it be the Jewish faith or the Christian faith or the Muslim faith or the Hindu faith-all faiths have got the power to transform lives."

But what Mr. Bush's listeners loved most was his strong support for their work-often carried out with few soldiers and fewer dollars. The federal government discriminated against them in the past, he said. The government should not care about how drug addicts, former prisoners, or teen moms are helped; only that the help worked. "And if it takes changing a person's heart to change addiction, we ought to welcome the power that changes a person's heart in our society," Mr. Bush said.

So along with the conference came a same-day executive order on the president's faith-based initiative. The order creates new faith-based offices in the Commerce and Veterans' Affairs departments and in the Small Business Administration. They followed seven created in other departments by ­executive orders in 2001 and 2002.

Together the directives allow faith-based groups to compete for federal money and still practice their faith without secularizing. They don't have to remove religious language from their mission statements or symbols such as crosses.

But a Democratic presidential ­victory would likely reverse those gains, said Jim Towey, director of the White House faith-based initiatives office. "I would expect that Sen. Kerry, if he was elected, would stick the faith-based initiative in the Smithsonian," said Mr. Towey, who describes himself as a "pro-life Democrat, one of 10 in America."

Hurdles to the president's faith-based overhaul began in the Senate. In 2001, the House passed a bill that would have allowed groups to keep their religious identities and hire staff based on religion. The bill withered in the Senate. Both chambers did pass acts last year that offered citizens tax deductions on charitable giving, but they purged those protections for faith-based groups.

No unified bill has yet reached Mr. Bush for signing. Senate Democrats continue to linger over the supposedly discriminatory hiring practices of faith-based groups who want to hire like-minded believers. But while the executive orders may seem contro­versial, a Democratic president may have a hard time inking one more to undo them.

Joseph Loconte, a religion fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Bush has succeeded in reforming regulations in 10 agencies and departments. Grant-making rules in each were changed under his orders. They would have to be changed back under a new administration. "That's going to create a stir and a lot of people will fight it," Mr. Loconte said. In an election year, the president's "armies of compassion" can only hope it's too late to turn back now.

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