Washington In a fresh controversy over President Bush's "faith-based initiative," the White House backed away from a proposal that would have allowed religious groups to receive federal funds even if they discriminated against gays and lesbians.
Amid intense criticism, officials abruptly ended a review of a proposed regulation that would have exempted religious groups that get taxpayer dollars from state and local anti-discrimination laws.
The decision came late Tuesday afternoon, hours after Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials said that churches and other religious groups should be allowed to stick to their principles in running secular programs with government money.
White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said senior administration officials reviewed the matter and concluded that religious groups do not need overt protections in order to bypass gay-rights hiring laws.
Legislation now 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.
He added that the administration was not backing off Cheney's statement that a group should be allowed to be faithful to its "underlying principles and organizing doctrines" even when it accepts government money.
The legislation as written, he 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. He 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, 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.
White House officials denied the quid pro quo, but said they were considering the regulation, which would allow religious groups to bypass local and state laws that bar discrimination against gays when the groups take federal dollars.
Gay rights groups, Democrats and civil rights organizations reacted strongly, and by day's end, it was clear that the issue would mean a new round of controversy for Bush's overall legislation.