WASHINGTON – Tying his plan for religious charities to the best hopes of the founding fathers, President Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to allow government funds to flow to churches, mosques and synagogues that seek to ease social woes.
"These soldiers in the armies of compassion deserve our support. They often need our support. And by taking their side, we act in the best tradition of our country," Bush said in a speech in front of Independence Hall.
Bush proposes that churches, synagogues and other religious groups be able to compete for government contracts in social services without stripping the religious elements from their programs. The plan has met with deep skepticism on Capitol Hill, where some critics say it could erode the separation of church and state.
If the Declaration of Independence's signers were alive today, Bush said, they would be pleased to see the religious liberties they cherished at work every day in religious institutions that feed the hungry, treat the addicted and give love to alienated children.
"Our founders would ... find, amid the problems of modern life, a familiar American spirit of faith and good works," Bush said. "They would see the signs of poverty and want, but also acts of great kindness and charity."
Bush dismissed criticisms of his proposal, saying it merely builds on the ideals that the nation's founding fathers articulated 225 years ago.
"America's founding documents give us religious liberty in principle," Bush said. "These Americans show us religious liberty in action."
Religious freedom, he said, "is more than the right to believe in God's love. It is the right to be an instrument of God's love. Such work is beyond the reach of government and beyond the role of government."
A small group of protesters jeered Bush's remarks.
Some of the skepticism about Bush's initiative stems from questions about whether tax dollars would help pay for programs that mix religion with social services -- for instance, a drug treatment program that helps people overcome addiction by finding Jesus. Also at issue is to what extent government-funded religious groups can consider applicants' religion in deciding whether to hire them.
Before his speech at Independence Hall, Bush and his wife, Laura, went to the Greater Exodus Baptist Church where the president played touch football with young people at an "urban block party" for children and families who participate in mentoring programs run by various churches or religious charities.
Bush exited the church with Philadelphia Mayor John Street, hugging singers in a choir and taking a turn dabbing red paint on a mural children were painting of patriotic scenes with American flags.
Bush was among the judges of a slam dunk contest and then wished everyone "a great Fourth of July. I want to thank all the adults who are telling the children they love them."
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Street expressed support for Bush's faith-based initiative.
"They're the ones who help the suffering," Ridge said. "If there is any doubt about the importance of this effort, just recall the words of our founders."
Street said religious charities carry a heavy burden of newly released inmates and children from broken families.
"When people need help, what they don't want is a constitutional debate," Street said. "This is not a new idea. This is an old idea whose time has come."