WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 -- Count the Rev. Valentine J. Peter, administrator of Nebraska's famed Boys and Girls Town, as a supporter of President Bush's plan to allow faith-based charities to secure federal funds.

Peter was among about 50 Roman Catholic leaders who met Wednesday with Bush as the president pushed his faith-based initiative for the third straight day Wednesday. Peter said it's about time religious leaders didn't have to check their faith at the door when dealing with government.

Bush announced Monday he wants government to partner with qualified religious organizations to bring social services to the people who need them. He has been meeting with religious leaders ever since to get their ideas on how the partnership should work.

Wednesday's Catholic delegation was led by Cardinal-elect Edward Egan, the Catholic archbishop of New York.

There's no way that government can create love," the president told the group gathered in the Indian Treaty Room of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House. "But what government can do is fund and welcome programs whose sole intent is to change lives in a positive way."

Bush congratulated Catholic leaders for their "unwavering commitment to the poor and to the disadvantaged" and their answering of a "call from the Lord" to help people.

He also touted a study released Wednesday by Independent Sector showing his proposal for allowing charitable deduction to Americans who do not itemize their taxes would prompt an additional $14.6 billion per year in charitable giving, an increase of 11 percent over current levels. The ban on non-itemizers taking deductions for charitable giving was enacted during the Reagan presidency.

"We must reform the tax code ... to allow non-itemizers to deduct charitable giving off their income," Bush told the leaders. "Our mission in the White House is to say we welcome you, we welcome your love, we welcome your finances, we welcome your compassion."

Peter, who leads the Omaha home for troubled children that was established by the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan in 1917, said later he told Bush the federal government must change the way it assesses the success of a program.

"I said the best advice I can give you ... is to make sure the chief goal of all grants are the results obtained," Peter said. "If it is a child welfare grant, did the children get better? The way the government usually talks about outcomes is they want to know if the money they gave you was spent for the purposes it was intended, and they usually do not ask for the outcome. 'Did you steal it?' 'No.'"

He said Bush laughed and responded, "We hope to do better than that."

Peter said for too long government has discriminated against faith-based agencies providing services to the poor and needy. He said Bush now realizes government can play a role.

"The pendulum is swinging from the extreme we've had in the last eight years of secularism and cries of no church involvement with government to a middle ground -- partnering without proselytizing," Peter said. "How they pray is up to them."

The best example, he said, is Mother Teresa.

"She always brought her faith with her. She never asked anyone to become a Christian. She loved them and cared for them," he said.

Other members of the delegation talked about the need to help immigrants, especially those from Latin America.

The Bush administration seeks to eliminate federal barriers to using faith groups as overseers of social programs.

It would identify and eliminate improper federal barriers to faith-based and community programs through reforms of agency laws and regulations and wants to stimulate private donations by expanding tax deductions. The Bush administration also wants to expand after-school and literacy services offered by religious groups, help the children of prisoners, and support other people in need.

The prospect of federal funds going to faith-based organizations has ignited a firestorm of criticism from organizations that argue such an initiative would violate constitutional separation of church and state.

The president, however, is pressing ahead with his initiative.

On Monday, he signed two executive orders creating the Office of Faith-based Action and Community Initiatives, and establishing liaison offices in five federal agencies to review regulations that stymie work with faith and community groups.

On Wednesday, he called for revisions in the tax code to help stimulate charitable giving to faith-based and secular non-profit organizations.

Egan was joined at the meeting by other prelates, including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Archbishop John Favalora of Miami, as well as representatives of the Knights of Columbus and Sisters of Life, a small religious order founded by the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York that provides housing to pregnant women in their convent.

Chaput said that it makes sense for Catholic groups and the government to work together on mutual goals of preserving individual dignity and common good.

"I think there's a natural fit between what President Bush is proposing and what we do in many of our Catholic social service agencies," he said.

Newly confirmed Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez voiced their support for Bush's plans to work with faith leaders.

"As secretary of HUD we're going to do all we can to advance it," said Martinez, who said he benefited personally from a Catholic program. The Cuban native was part of the Miami Catholic Welfare Bureau's "Operation Pedro Pan," which helped bring Cuban children to the United States in the wake of the Cuban revolution.

"I myself am a living example of what can happen when a charity like the Catholic Church, in my instance, and government can work in partnership," he said.

Chao, the former president of United Way of America, said she supports government work with religious organizations to help the needy.

"When we talk about helping those in need, we're talking about transformation of lives," she said. "And faith-based organizations have a very critical role to play and we want to include them, not discriminate against them."

Critics of Bush's faith-based agenda continue to voice concerns about it possibly dismantling the wall between church and state.

In a joint letter to Bush, representatives of 19 national religious, civil rights and other groups urged him to prevent the federal funding of religious institutions that discriminate in their employment based on the religious beliefs of the employer or an applicant.

Among those signing the letter, dated Tuesday, are Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Egan said he personally is not concerned the proposal will infringe on church-state separation, but also wants to make sure that participating religious organizations will not be "secularized" through the effort.

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