Faith initiative begins

 

President-elect George W. Bush has met a group of religious leaders in Austin to launch his "faith-based" initiative, which will seek to give religious organisations more power to administer programmes for the poor and disadvantaged.

The lunch and talk at Austin's First Baptist Church was also intended as a way for Mr Bush to build support among black voters, after winning only 9 per cent of their votes last month.

The group of about 30 included a rabbi, academics, representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Islamic Centre of America. But the largest representation came from African-American religious leaders.

"It was a bridge-building meeting where Bush reached out to the unconverted," said the Rev Eugene Rivers, who runs a faith-based social programme in Boston called the Ten Point Coalition. Mr Rivers said he was particularly pleased that Mr Bush "made a commitment to focus on Africa and the AIDS crisis".

Mr Bush spoke relatively little, preferring to listen to his guests, including the Rev Floyd Flake, a former Democratic congressman from New York who has been mentioned as a possible education secretary, and a former Indianapolis mayor, Mr Stephen Goldsmith, Mr Bush's domestic policy adviser, who may head a White House office of "faith-based action", which Mr Bush intends to set up.

The Congress of National Black Churches, which represents major African-American denominations, complained that its leaders were not invited, although two of those present, Mr Flake and the Rev Cheryl Sanders of the Third Street Church of God, Washington, were from the group's denominations. Mr Bobby Scott (Democrat, Virginia) called the "charitable choice" programme, which Mr Bush would expand, "a substitute for racial discrimination".

Mr Bush's "faith-based" effort, long one of his favourite initiatives, would seek to ease regulations that prevent religious organisations from participating in federal programmes. He would also expand the federal charitable deduction and promote a charity tax credit for contributions to groups that work with the poor.