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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

President Bush had no public comment on the ports deal today. Instead, his statements in front of the cameras were focused on the Patriot Act, which he signed into law today. He also talked about a familiar theme, faith, and its potential to reshape how government works.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If you're addicted to alcohol, if a faith program is able to get you off alcohol, we ought to say hallelujah and thanks at the federal level.

BLOCK: The president said more and more religious charities are getting federal contracts for social programs. But, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, progress has been slower than the president and many of his supporters would like.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

The power of the faith-based initiative, President Bush said at a White House conference is in the stories. Consider, he said, JC Vision, a faith-based group in Hainesville, Georgia that helps the poor get home loans. The group's director, Dana Ingram, use to serve 500 people a year with a budget of about a hundred thousand dollars. Then came the faith-based initiative.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: So she applied and she was awarded a grant. Her budget is now $400,000. Now she's serving 10,000 people. (APPLAUSE)

The idea is to promote successful programs.

HAGERTY: Those kinds of statistics delivery a punch, but do they tell the story? Perhaps not says Marvin Olasky, one of the conservative architects of the faith-based initiative.

Mr. MARVIN OLASKY (Conservative Architect, Faith-based Initiative): President Bush has been very good at giving speeches about this. But certainly, the attention of the administration has been Afghanistan and Iraq, and in ports and other matters of that sort, rather than faith-based initiatives. I mean that's clear.

HAGERTY: Remember, he says, the faith-based initiative was the president's first major policy when he came to office in January 2001. But he says the White House chose tax cuts over the faith-based initiative in those first few months, and after 9/11, the issue had lost its momentum. Not so, says James Towey, the administration's point man on the issue.

Mr. JAMES TOWEY (Faith-Based Initiative Advocate): The president's delivering on what he promised, grants to religious charities are up again this year. You see 32 governors now with faith-based offices, so this isn't just a Washington phenomenon. But having said that, there's been a steady headwind all along, and I don't think that's ever going to let up.

HAGERTY: Specifically, Towey says the amount of federal money going to religious groups has increased seven percent in the past year, to $2.15 billion dollars. The reason it's not more, he says, is that barriers remain.

For example, local and state governments awarded only two to five percent of their contracts to religious charities. Moreover, Towey says, Congress has not passed legislation allowing the faith-based initiative, so the president has had to take down barriers through executive order. Which is a good thing, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He believes the initiative is unconstitutional, because it allows groups to discriminate in whom they hire.

Mr. BARRY LYNN (Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State): I think Congress revolts against the idea that if a religious group gets tax money from all of the people, it can still hang up a sign that says, No Jews need apply for a job here, and get away with it. Yet that's the central principle of the faith-based initiative. You get tax dollars. You're still allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion.

HAGERTY: Despite the roadblocks, Marvin Olasky says President Bush should get high marks for trying to change a government system that has been hostile to religion.

Mr. OLASKY: It took 70 years from the 1920s to the 1990s to build up the federal system of social services that we have. And it's going to take a long time reverse that.

HAGERTY: Still, Olasky says, he wishes it would go faster. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News, Washington.

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