Hoping to involve churches and religious organizations more deeply in government efforts to address social ills, Mr. Bush on Thursday was to sign an executive order aimed at giving those groups a leg up in the competition for federal money, administration officials said. He was announcing the changes in a speech to religious and charitable leaders in Philadelphia.
The president began pushing the issue on Capitol Hill in his second week in office but ran into a fierce debate over how religious groups could get government money without running afoul of the constitutional separation of church and state.
He was successful in the House but the Senate wouldn't even give him a watered-down version that mainly increased tax breaks for charitable giving.
Even with next year's total Republican control of Congress sure to create a more friendly environment, Mr. Bush decided to forge ahead on his own.
By far the most contentious of the changes is Mr. Bush's executive order informing federal agencies that religious organizations refusing to hire people of any faith can still win contracts. Civil rights law bars discrimination on the basis of religion, but constitutional problems arise when government money is involved.
Religious charities have long been a part of the nonprofit network that delivers many government services. But historically, these groups have had to keep their work government contracts separate from their religious activities — setting up separate entities to administer the contracts, and delivering the government services in an area free of religious practice or symbol.
That began to change under the welfare reform law of 1996, which included provisions on charitable choice, which allowed religious organizations to perform government services without keeping their faith-based activities separate. Charitable Choice covered programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as well as welfare-to-work, community block grant and substance abuse programs. Mr. Bush's order will extend this to more programs.
Broadly, Mr. Bush's directive tells federal agencies to ensure religious groups are treated equally with others in all respects, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Federal contractors also can no longer be denied federal money for displaying religious icons, such as a cross or a menorah.
"He doesn't want to make it a faith-favored public square but he wants it to be faith-friendly," said Jim Towey, the director of the White House office of faith-based and community initiatives.
Also, the executive order restates that organizations cannot use federal funds to preach a particular faith, worship or provide religious instruction.
Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said religious groups would be allowed to discriminate in hiring while other groups could not.
"It's not equal treatment," he said. "It's special treatment for religious groups. … In essence, the government is going to be funding religious discrimination."
Behind the president's push to expand the role of churches in addressing poverty, hunger, homelessness and drug abuse is his belief that they can be more effective than other groups in helping the needy.
His administration contends that religious groups face unfair barriers.
White House officials cited the examples of the Victory Center Rescue Mission in Iowa, which was threatened with losing $100,000 in federal money because its governing board wasn't secular enough, and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, told it could not apply for a federal grant because the word "Jewish" was part of its name.
In other administrative changes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will now allow religious nonprofits such as schools and soup kitchens to get federal aid after natural disasters.
Additionally, new regulations being unveiled Thursday from the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Housing and Urban Development also preserve the right of religious groups providing certain government-financed services to hire based on religion.
Finally, Mr. Bush was creating offices to help shepherd religious groups through the bureaucracy in two departments, Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development. That brings the total number of agencies with such offices to seven.
The faith-based initiative is only one area where critics have assailed the president for breaching the church-state wall. His nomination of Dr. W. David Hager to an FDA committee on reproductive health is under fire from abortion rights advocates for Hager's belief in the healing power of prayer.