Washington Working to implement President Bush's stalled "faith-based initiative," five Cabinet agencies are writing rules into federal law that Congress has balked at. The rules will help churches and other religious groups obtain millions of federal social service dollars with few strings attached.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials will let churches, synagogues and mosques use federal money for programs infused with religion and consider religion in hiring and firing workers.
It only makes sense, said Roberta Jones, the president of Cleveland-based Life Alternative Inc., one of 562 applicants for the new grant program. Imagine, she said, if a domestic violence victim comes in for help.
"The first thing I'm going to do is pray with you," said Jones, whose group helps churches apply for government grants. "I'm now using my religious art to really minister to this person. I'm going to go to the very thing that I'm comfortable with."
HHS officials say there's no problem using tax dollars for a program in which prayer is central, a point that is hotly disputed among Americans and that Congress has refused to endorse. The Bush administration has the power to change regulations on its own, although these moves are subject to legal challenge.
The administration takes a broad view of the constitutional separation between church and state. If tax dollars are used for secular elements of the program like a computer or a van the rest can have a religious base, said Robert Polito, director of the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
"We wouldn't be called the faith-based office if we weren't trying to see how we can partner with the faith community," he said. "We don't have to take the temperature of the religiosity of the program."
Congressional action on Bush's effort is stalled over such questions: How much religion is too much when government money is involved? Also in contention is whether to let government-funded religious groups discriminate in hiring.
The House approved a bill with most of what Bush wanted. But in the Senate, supporters have failed to get a vote on even the watered-down version of the bill they introduced.
In the meantime, HHS is writing rules on its own, and other agencies are preparing to do the same.
"It would be great to have legislation, but there's a ton of stuff I can do without it," Polito said.
Critics are furious.
"The administration seems to say, 'We couldn't get the votes in Congress, so we're going to hijack every dollar we can and move it into faith-based ministries,"' said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, officials are set to rewrite regulations governing eight grant programs that now bar religious groups if they are unwilling to hire people of all faiths. "That creates an impediment to faith-based organizations that's unnecessary," said Steven Wagner, director of HUD's "faith-based" office.
Similarly, at the Education Department, officials are interpreting a new federal law on after-school programs as allowing groups to use religion in their hiring decisions.
Initiatives also are advancing at the Justice and Labor departments. However, the effort is moving most dramatically at HHS, where there is new money to spend.
Last year, Congress allocated $30 million for technical assistance to help religious groups learn how to apply for government money.
But HHS added a twist when it invited applications for the money.
The groups that win large grants can pass an unlimited amount of it to small religious groups, which may use it for startup costs and for "operations" in essence, running programs to address a wide range of social problems with no congressional guidance on the church versus state issue.