WASHINGTON – President Bush praised the power of religion at a black church in New Orleans Thursday morning and later laid a wreath at the crypt of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, where he was greeted by angry protesters.
"When I heard Bush was coming here I couldn't believe it. I was outraged and disgusted, and I just think it's a photo op. It's so transparent," said Kathy Nicholas, a flight attendant from Atlanta, who was among hundreds of local supporters protesting Bush before his appearance at the tomb of the civil rights leader.
King would have been 75 on Thursday. Before Bush's arrival at the afternoon ceremony, protesters pushed past Secret Service barricades and chanted, "In 2004, Bush no more."
Up to 800 people, many of them anti-war protesters and environmental advocates, marched in circles near the tomb. Some protesters beat drums while others held signs that displayed King's image and read "War is not the answer." No arrests were immediately reported.
Bush's visit to honor King and meet with his widow, Coretta Scott King, was not meant as an opportunity for the president to discuss the merits of war. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president's visit was a way to pay tribute to "Dr. King's legacy, his vision and his lifetime of service."
"This is a way to honor a lifetime dedicated to fighting for equal opportunity and equal justice for all people," he said.
Mrs. King did not comment on the visit, but has been a vocal opponent to the war in Iraq. Officials at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change (search), the organization founded by King's widow, said they extended no formal invitation to Bush but accepted his offer to come.
Bush's visit to observe King's birthday upset some activists who said the president's policies on Iraq, affirmative action and funding for social services conflict with King's legacy. They also complained that the scheduling conflicted with their own plans to honor King.
Earlier in the day, Bush stopped in New Orleans, where he praised the power of religion to solve some of the seemingly impossible problems of society and individuals.
Bush took the opportunity to pursue greater support among black voters for his plan to let religious charities in on more federal spending. He used himself as an example of the good that religion can do, citing his own decision to stop drinking at age 40 "because I changed my heart."
He also referred to King's influence.
"Dr. King understood that faith is power greater than all others," Bush said from the pulpit of the packed Union Bethel A.M.E. Church in a run-down, crime-plagued neighborhood near this city's downtown.
Union Bethel's pulpit is the same spot where King preached 42 years ago about the power of religion to solve problems where government could not. Bush has been pushing his faith-based initiative as a way to provide local congregations and faith-oriented service groups with the resources needed to assist members of their communities.
"My attitude is, the government should not fear faith-based programs — we ought to welcome faith-based programs (search) and we ought to fund faith-based programs. Faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith. It's important for our government to understand that," he said.
For Bush, the faith-based initiative is partly aimed at appealing to two important constituencies: religious conservatives, who make up his base of support, and black voters, only 9 percent of whom supported him in 2000.
The president also appeared at a luncheon at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans and was planning to attend an evening reception at an Atlanta hotel that would together add $2.3 million to his already bulging campaign account. In Atlanta, Bush was to be introduced by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (search), who has been a frequent supporter of the president's initiatives in the Senate and said late last year that he would support the president.
At Union Bethel, in a speech laced with religious references — and at a meeting with community leaders — Bush renewed his push to open more federal spending on social programs to religious groups.
He said the church's many efforts — such as feeding the homeless, teaching neighborhood children karate and running a day-care center — are a perfect example of the kind of programs the federal government should fund.
"Problems that face our society are oftentimes problems that, you know, require something greater than just a government program or a government counselor to solve," he said. "Intractable problems, problems that seem impossible to solve, can be solved. There is the miracle of salvation that is real, that is tangible, that is available for all to see."
Bush has sought legislation to give religious groups access to federal funds as long as their services are available to anyone, but without requiring them to make fundamental changes. The legislation has not gone anywhere in Congress, but lawmakers have put forward a package of tax incentives to encourage charitable giving.
While that measure awaits approval, Bush has used executive orders and new regulations to remove many of the barriers — such as being required to ban all religious activities and adjust hiring practices — that have kept religious groups from competing for federal grants. Bush announced Thursday that the Justice Department has finalized just such regulations affecting $3.7 billion in funding, primarily for programs that help crime victims, prevent child victimization and promote safe schools.
Some opponents of the policy fear the government will wind up paying to support religion.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search), said Bush is trying to overturn two centuries of church-state separation required by the Constitution and institute "taxpayer-subsidized job discrimination" by allowing taxpayer-funded groups to hire and fire based on religious belief.
Fox News' James Rosen and Peter Brownfeld and The Associated Press contributed to this report.