Bush to use religion in fight against poverty


AUSTIN, Texas, AFP

In his first policy-oriented event since becoming U.S. president-elect, George W. Bush will Wednesday highlight his vow to use religious institutions in the fight against poverty.

Bush will meet with several ministers in the Texas capital as part of his effort to promote the use of “faith-based” government welfare programs, expand charitable giving and increase tax credits for adoption.

“It’s the important … next step in welfare reform and it’s important to start building the coalitions, support and ideas,” said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett. “This is the beginning of working on and talking about a substantive agenda and the implementation of an agenda.”

Later in the week, Bush will continue his policy discussions, focusing on education and agriculture, aides said. On Thursday, Bush will meet with members of Congress and, separately, with Latino leaders to discuss education reform.

The meeting in Austin will also highlight Bush’s effort to reach out to African-Americans, 90 percent of whom voted for Al Gore in the 2000 election. Last week, Bush spoke with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who was extremely critical of the vote in disputed Florida, where there were charges of minority voter disenfranchisement.

About one-third of the ministers scheduled to attend the Wednesday meeting are black. They include Muslim, Christian and Jewish representatives.

“It’s also about reaching out to these important constituencies that are going to not only help, we believe in bringing the agenda together and getting it past the Congress, but also they’re the ones who are going to be implementing it,” Bartlett said.

Bush spoke of faith-based initiatives in his first major policy speech as a presidential candidate, and he has spoken in the past of his own reliance on religious counseling when he quit drinking in 1986.

Under his proposal, Bush would spend US$8 billion in the first year of his presidency to provide new tax incentives for charities and other private institutions that, as his campaign literature put it, “save and change lives.”

He also promised to create an “Office of Faith-Based Action” in the White House, remove legal barriers to the participation of religious groups in government programs, add new adoption incentives and develop “second-chance” homes for unwed teenage mothers.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that more than half of all Americans support giving tax dollars to religious groups that provide job-training, drug counseling and other services.

But the idea has been controversial. Several religious leaders in Texas — where Bush pushed faith-based initiatives as governor — criticized the programs as a dangerous blurring of the lines between government and religion.

And at least one faith-based program has led to a lawsuit in Austin. The American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights Project are trying to recoup 8,000 dollars in tax money received by the Jobs Partnership of Washington County.

The two plaintiffs said the partnership used the money to buy Bibles and to promote Christianity instead of helping people find jobs.