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Bush backs off plan to allow aid recipients to ignore gays

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Weaving its way through a fresh round of controversy over funneling federal money to religious groups, the White House backed off a plan to let the groups ignore local laws that ban discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Through most of Tuesday, Bush administration officials said they were reviewing a request by the Salvation Army to issue federal regulations to make clear that churches and other religious charities that receive federal money are not subject to local anti-discrimination laws.

Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials suggested the administration was open to the idea, saying that accepting government money should not force religious groups to abandon their principles.

After several hours of attack by gay rights groups, Democrats and others, however, the White House backed off. It said the nascent review was complete and the regulation would not be forthcoming.

"There was absolutely no commitment made," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday. He suggested the media were part of the problem, saying reporters should have done better fact-checking with White House officials, rather than trusting information that "outside organizations purport to represent as definitive."

At issue are state and local laws aimed at protecting gay rights. Some of them bar discrimination in hiring; others require employers to offer health insurance and other benefits to the domestic partners of gay employees. Typically, these laws do not apply to religious groups. But it's not clear whether groups lose that exemption once they accept taxpayer dollars.

The White House is not saying that taxpayer-funded churches groups should be forced to abide by these local laws. Rather, officials concluded that religious groups do not need overt protections to bypass gay-rights hiring laws, said spokesman Dan Bartlett.

Legislation pending in Congress — and being pushed hard by Bush — makes it clear that any religious group that gets government money may consider religion in making hiring decisions. The courts have said this includes one's religious practices — and for many religions that could mean rejecting job applicants because they are gay.

"That's when you get into definitions that will ultimately be decided by the courts," Bartlett said.

For instance, a religious group could claim that federal law allows it to hire whom it chooses, while someone else claims local law bars discrimination against gays.

The legislation as written, Bartlett said, provides "adequate protections" for groups that might object to hiring gays.

David Smith, a gay rights advocate, agreed that the legal issues are unresolved and said the solution is for Congress to explicitly bar discrimination against gays and lesbians. "Federal funds should not be given to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation," he said.

The issue was raised by an internal report from the Salvation Army, the nation's largest charity, which suggested the White House would put forward the regulation in exchange for support of its initiative to open government programs to religious groups, now pending in Congress.

The report said White House officials wanted to move the legislation first "and use the political momentum of this" to push through the regulatory change. And it said White House officials believed a regulation was better than trying to move separate legislation on an exemption, "which is more time-consuming and more visible."

White House officials denied the quid pro quo, and the Salvation Army said the author of the report overstated the relationship between the issues.

Gay rights groups, Democrats and civil rights organizations reacted strongly to both the appearance of a back room deal and to the idea of skirting anti-discrimination laws.

By day's end, it was clear that the issue would mean a new round of controversy for Bush's overall legislation.

"It will just deepen opposition and make many of my colleagues more skeptical," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said before the White House changed course.

Later, Lieberman's spokesman, Dan Gerstein, welcomed the change.

"This is a reassuring signal after a very disturbing signal," he said. "Hopefully it means we can now kind of refocus on finding common ground and strengthening rather than weakening civil rights protections."