PHILADELPHIA – President Bush signed an executive order Thursday that makes it easier for religious groups that perform social service work to receive grants from the federal government even if the religious group employs selective hiring practices.
Hoping to involve churches and religious organizations more deeply in government efforts to address social ills, Bush on Thursday signed the order aimed at giving those groups a leg up in the competition for federal money.
"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 or a religious commitment in the charter. The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end," Bush said after touring the youth center at the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
Other executive actions enacted by the order include rewriting rules to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give federal aid to religious, non-profit groups following natural disasters.
Also to be established are more federal government offices whose mission will be to help religious groups clear through bureaucratic red tape. The Agriculture Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are now two of seven agencies with such liaison offices.
"When decisions are made on public funding, we should not focus on the religion you practice. We should focus on the results you deliver," Bush said to several "amens" among a largely minority crowd that provides many of the social services in downtown Philadelphia and around the country.
Bush's aim is merely to give religious groups as fair a shake as any others, said Jim Towey, the director of the White House office of faith-based and community initiatives.
"He doesn't want to make it a faith-favored public square but he wants it to be faith-friendly," Towey said.
"I recognize that government has no business endorsing a religious creed or directly funding religious worship or religious teaching," Bush said in Philadelphia. "That is not the business of the government. Yet government can and should support social services provided by religious people as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith. And when government gives that support, charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission."
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."
The White House made the faith-based initiative one of its earliest legislative priorities, but the Democratic-controlled Senate killed the version of the bill that cleared the GOP-controlled House.
Bush was on his 17th visit to Pennsylvania since taking office, the most visits to any state. Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest number of electoral votes.
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.
Bush's administration contends that religious groups face unfair barriers.
The president referred to several groups who have been denied funds or discouraged from applying for federal grant money because they are not secular enough.
In reference to recent remarks by Republican Sen. Trent Lott that started a firestorm questioning his views on racial equality, Bush said Lott was right to apologize, especially since the Republican Party is dedicated to "equal dignity and equal rights of every American."
"And this is the principle that guides my administration: We will not and we must not rest until every person, of every race, believes in the promise of America because they see it in their own eyes, with their own eyes, and they live it and feel it in their own lives," he said.
Fox News' James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.