Faith leaders are greeting the Bush administration's Office of Faith-Based Organizations and Community Initiatives with a mixture of eagerness, caution, and skepticism.

A common concern is that the government might require faith-based groups to set aside the life-changing religious component of their work. As one of the leaders of these groups says, "If government wants the power drill without the juice, the deal's off!"

Government contracts for welfare services were first opened to qualifying faith-based organizations through the charitable-choice provision of the 1996 welfare reform law.

While the opportunity is perceived by some as a devilish trade of cash for compromised character, a closer look at the law's provisions shows it to be broadly protective, largely underused, and poorly understood, says Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy studies at the Center for Public Justice (www.cpjustice.org).

Charitable choice protects the rights of government-funded faith communities to hire and fire employees using religious criteria, to maintain religious surroundings, and to evangelize and disciple welfare recipients, says Carlson-Thies. But charities cannot pay for worship services or proselytization with federal funding, discriminate or refuse to serve welfare recipients on the basis of race or creed, or force beneficiaries to participate in religious activities without furnishing an alternative.

"If you've contracted and agreed to give job training, you have to give that and not divert that money to evangelism. And while you may argue correctly that someone's biggest hurdle in getting a job is a spiritual crisis and they need to get saved, government can't pay for this," Carlson-Thies said. "If while learning to prepare ...

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