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The major presidential candidates have each voiced support for federal funding of faith-based social services. So far, however, none has unveiled a specific plan for the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, started in 2000 by President Bush.

Sen. Barack Obama told Christianity Today that he wants to examine how the office operates first.

"One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune," Obama said. "I want to see how moneys have been allocated through that office before I make a firm commitment [to] sustaining practices that may not have worked as well as they should have."

The White House estimates that faith-based and community organizations have received $7.5 billion in government grants since 2003, while secular nonprofits have received $25 billion. In January's State of the Union address, President Bush called on legislators to permanently extend laws making federal funding available to religiously affiliated social services.

The next President will face several challenges in continuing the faith-based office's work, however. One is the unresolved debate over whether faith-based organizations can discriminate in hiring based on applicants' religious beliefs, a nonnegotiable for many Christian social-service providers. Perceptions of partisanship and questionable success in distributing funds have also clouded the office's achievements.

Although President Bush raised awareness of faith-based initiatives, the total amount of federal spending on social services declined between 2002 and 2004, according to a 2006 study by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.

Also, though the White ...

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