PHILADELPHIA -- Sidestepping Congress, President Bush took action Thursday to help churches and other religious groups better compete for federal dollars to provide social services.
He said he wanted to "clear away a legacy of discrimination" against such organizations, even those that refuse to hire people of a different faith.
"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," Bush told a White House-sponsored conference of religious and charitable leaders.
"The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end."
His announcement pleased conservatives who want more support for the charitable efforts of religious groups. It was greeted with dismay and skepticism by liberals and moderates who worry that government funding of overtly religious endeavors violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
With Congress stalled on the "faith-based" initiative he had pushed since the beginning of his administration, the president bypassed lawmakers to put in place some of his ideas. He used executive orders and other administrative actions in an effort to give religious organizations the same chance as other groups in winning federal contracts.
For example, federal contractors no longer can be denied taxpayer money if they display religious icons. He also made clear that no money "will be used to directly support inherently religious activities."
Nonetheless, there was plenty of criticism.
"All Americans should find abhorrent a government policy that allows for a religious or racial litmus test when hiring with taxpayer money a person to serve soup," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. "Cooking soup and giving it to the poor can be done equally well by persons of all religious beliefs."