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Government funding of faith-based social programs is one of the "symbolic centrist issues" that President Bush is embracing to consolidate his public support, the Jewish community was told Thursday evening.

The question is whether government funding will allow some religious groups to maintain their present level of social services and to spend more for religion, said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Manhattan-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Speaking in the Amherst Jewish Center to about 180 subscribers to the Jewish Federation's Dosberg Notable Speaker Series, Saperstein discussed "charitable choice" and other ramifications of the election of the first Republican president with a Republican-dominated Congress since 1952.

In his 27 years as executive director of the Religious Action Center, Saperstein has earned a reputation as the "quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill," according to the Washington Post. His wife, Ellen Weiss, is executive producer of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

Saperstein discussed the president's proposal to include religious-sponsored programs among those the federal government subsidizes in order to encourage social services for the poor by the private sector.

"Some say the answer is to let government funds support the secular but not the religious parts of the programs," he said. "Pay for the food and the food preparation (for the poor) but not the altar or the people preaching from the altar.

"But the U.S. Supreme Court has never accepted it," he went on. "It frees up money to pay for (more of) the religious aspects" of programs sponsored by these churches.

Noting that Catholic Charities and other sectarian charities may, if they wish, hire only their own members without being charged with discrimination, Saperstein asked, "Should government money be used to discriminate?"

Saperstein also suggested that "government funding is bad for religion," because it would force churches, synagogues and mosques to undergo government auditing of their social programs and bureaucratically "impinge on religious freedom."

Government support of faith-based programs is just one of many "symbolic centrist issues" that the Bush administration has selected to please its conservative supporters and also appeal to minorities, he said.

Noting that many African-American churches sponsor school and social outreach programs, Saperstein said many of their members might be attracted to Bush's proposals for charitable choice, school vouchers, allowing prayer before school sports events and posting the Ten Commandments in public places.

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