Bolstered by the support of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, President Bush appealed to the nation's mayors Monday to support his plan to enlist religious groups to help provide social services.
In a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Bush acknowledged that his plan faces difficulties in Congress and urged the mayors to help him overcome congressional skeptics.
Bush also repeated his pledge that money will be used to generate new energy for social programs. "The funds will be spent on social services, not worship services," Bush promised.
The measure would open participation in a range of government social welfare programs to churches, synagogues and other religious groups. The opportunity for religious participation already is in place for welfare, drug treatment and community service programs.
The most controversial provision of the House bill allows religious groups to require their employees in government-financed programs to adhere to their religious practices.
Opponents say that could lead to discrimination against gays, women and other groups and suggest that the initiative risks trespassing on Constitutional provisions against the establishment of religion.
Bush responded to such criticisms, saying "We respect the separation of church and state and the constitutional rights of religious people. But the days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end if we want to heal America. ... faith-based organizations should be allowed to compete for government funds without hiding their religious orientation."
"We must recognize that new challenges demand new responses," Bush added. To do this, he said, government must "support the good work of charities and neighborhood healers."
Bush also announced that Rosa Parks, who became a key figure in the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, has endorsed his initiative.
In a proclamation, the mayors endorsed Bush's goals and applauded the charitable work of religious groups but did not address specific legislation before Congress.
"The United States Conference of Mayors strongly endorses President Bush's efforts to highlight and increase public awareness about the key roles these groups play within our society, and to increase both public and private support for effective community-serving groups," the proclamation said.
Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said the administration hopes the necessary religious-aid legislation will advance through the House Judiciary Committee, and possibly the House Ways and Means Committee, this week. The bill opens 10 new programs to participation by religious charities.
Administration negotiators and key members of Congress have failed to reach agreement on many details, however, and committee action has been pushed back several times. Companion legislation also has yet to be introduced in the Senate, where even supporters say considerable changes will be needed before a bill can move forward.
So far, the bill has attracted little support from Democrats, who are concerned about using federal tax dollars to finance programs that may try to convert people to a particular faith or practice religious discrimination in hiring staff.
The Associated Press contributed to this report