WASHINGTON -- President Bush's plan to allow churches, synagogues and other religious bodies to compete for government money is drawing quiet objections from religious groups that are among the biggest providers of social services.
'This has been the most incredible public relations coup any administration has had. Who can be against government partnerships with churches?'
-- Sharon Daly
of Catholic Charities USA
While not opposing Bush's initiative outright, Lutheran, Catholic and Jewish groups are raising concerns about potential religious discrimination and coercion, echoing arguments from civil libertarian quarters.
''We believe basically in that separation in church and state,'' said Joanne Negstad, president of Lutheran Services in America, an umbrella organization for 280 groups.
The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives opened Tuesday, and its head, John DiIulio, has been busy meeting with these and other groups, trying to address concerns and build support.
''Given what we're proposing, I think those concerns are rather misplaced,'' DiIulio said in a recent interview. But he said discrimination questions are ''an important issue that we're obviously going to discuss.''
The most vocal opposition to Bush's proposal has come from groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union. But religious groups that are actually providing social services are quietly making virtually identical points, while hoping they will have a place at the table when policy details are settled.
''There are a thicket of questions that we would look forward to discussing,'' said Diana Aviv, vice president for public policy for United Jewish Communities, which represents 189 local Jewish federations.
She and others also hope to use momentum from Bush's initiative to press for more total social service spending, something Bush has not proposed.
The religious discrimination argument has become the central argument for the ACLU and other secular opponents of Bush's initiative.
The more theoretical concept of separation of church and state ''just doesn't resonate with people,'' said the ACLU's Terry Schroeder. ''If you talk in terms of government imposing religion, people get that.''
Negstad of Lutheran Services voiced concerns about potential discrimination in both hiring and services. ''That really bothers us,'' she said.
She also worries about forcing participants in a government program to take part in religion. She pointed to a religious program for troubled kids in Minneapolis, which requires prayer before meals.
''Those people are in a dependency kind of relationship,'' she said. ''What concerns us is those religious activities are required. We really believe they need to be voluntary.''
Religious groups are voicing other concerns as well, including government infringement on churches' freedom. Others worry about government funding of religious groups outside the mainstream, such as the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam.
Groups with religious ties have received government funding for decades, but to avoid constitutional problems, they have set up separate organizations. These spin-off groups might offer religious services, but those services cannot be required or incorporated into the core of programs. And unlike churches and synagogues, the groups must adhere to anti-discrimination laws that govern hiring.
Under Bush's plan, religious groups could compete for government funding directly, without establishing separate organizations and without altering the religious core of their programming.
It's an expansion of the ''charitable choice'' provision first adopted in the 1996 welfare overhaul. The issue got little attention that year, dwarfed by the sweeping issues surrounding changing the welfare system. And the provision later was extended to community development and drug treatment programs with little fanfare.
Now that Bush wants to expand ''charitable choice'' to all government-funded social services, the issue is getting a much closer look.
''I think this is a question for the American people as well as the courts,'' said Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA. ''Do they think it's appropriate for government funds to be used in programs that would discriminate in their hiring? It's a very big question that needs to be discussed.''
Catholic Charities does not discriminate, she said. ''That's not because we get government money. It's because our agencies want a diverse work force that reflects the community, so that people in need won't feel that only Catholics are welcome.''
Bush and his supporters say that religious groups will qualify for funding only if there are other, secular alternatives available. But Aviv is skeptical, saying it would be quite expensive to have a second, comparable social service provider in every city where a religious group operates.
But she and her colleagues are mindful of the dangers of looking too negative.
''This has been the most incredible public relations coup any administration has had,'' said Daly. ''Who can be against government partnerships with churches?''
But, she said, ''If individual congregations get government money, there will be very challenging days ahead.''
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