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Rebecca Carr (The Atlanta Constitution)/Washington -- A Republican-led summit Wednesday built momentum among religious leaders for partnerships with government, but opposition groups protested that they had been excluded.

Noticeably absent from the daylong event on Capitol Hill were Democrats and the most vocal opponents of such partnerships, which are the cornerstone of President Bush's faith-based initiative.

"Today's invitation-only Republican faith-based summit looks like the manipulation of religion for partisan politician gain," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based grassroots organization of religious and civic leaders.

The exclusion of some religious leaders who oppose Bush's initiative, Gaddy said, "stands in stark contrast to President Bush's rhetoric of inclusion and respect for all religions."

But summit organizers -- House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) -- say they were not trying to exclude. Rather, they said, they were trying to open the door and learn from the people on the front lines of poverty on how best to implement the president's proposal.

The "House-Senate Majority Faith-Based Summit" drew more than 400 religious leaders. Most were African-American, and many religions were represented.

Key Democrats such as Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), co-sponsors of legislation embracing the president's plan, were invited to speak last week, but the invitations came too late to fit into their schedules.

In an indication of support on Capitol Hill for the president's plan, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) both addressed the summit. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) spoke about the importance of helping the "least and most forgotten in society" with faith-based programs.

Quoting from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Hutchison said, "We can agree on the priority of helping our most vulnerable."

Lott thanked all the "brothers and sisters" gathered at the lunch and told them that the president's plan, which includes giving religious groups greater access to federal money, is "visionary."

Interviews with more than a dozen clergy assembled in the ornate, mosaic-tiled Library of Congress building for a two-hour luncheon of political speeches, suggested that the morning's closed-door sessions with White House officials were effective.

Nearly all said they would apply for federal grants to expand their ministries if the president's initiative becomes law.

"Many of us felt outside government funding; now we have a whole new feeling of hope," said Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a congregation of 24,000 in Decatur, Ga. The idea for the summit grew out of discussions between Watts and Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, senior pastor of the Redemptive Life Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach.

Ray, who started a separate nonprofit group called the National Center for Faith Based Initiative, helped the GOP host the event. Parts of the summit were broadcast by satellite to at least 40 churches and schools throughout the country, including Zion Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

The summit was intended to open a dialogue on ways religious groups can tap into the same government funding as secular nonprofits. It was open to people of all faiths, colors and party lines, despite what the opposition groups suggested, Ray said.

The audience included religious leaders who had not endorsed the president's initiative in the past.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has expressed reservations about government funding religious social ministries.

But Land said he felt "encouraged" about what the president's initiative could do for the poor.

"If this program is passed into law, the poor, indigent and semi-permanent underclass will no longer live on the liberal elite plantation," Land said. "They will be empowered to help themselves and their neighbors without having to go hat in hand to government-paid social workers."

(c) 2001 The Atlanta Constitution

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