Beliefnet
WASHINGTON, March 2 (AP) -- President Bush's pointman for directing more federal money to religious charities says the effort probably will wind up in court, even as he tries to convince Americans that concerns over mixing church and state are overstated.

"Americans sue each other. They sue and sue and sue," John DiIulio said in an interview. "I guess it's going to happen."

DiIulio, who directs the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said he is convinced that the courts will line up on his side. "Am I blinking? I'm not blinking," he said.

He doesn't seem to be revving for a fight, either. Less than two weeks into his Washington job, the Ivy League academic strikes an attitude that's more professorial than litigious, more lecturer than lobbyist. DiIulio seems sure he can convince skeptics that their fears are exaggerated.

When pressed, he addresses the heart of their concerns, allowing that much of their legal analysis is accurate.

Yes, he says, government money may wind up paying for programs that require involvement in religion, even require someone to profess particular religious views.

Yes, he says, churches and synagogues should be allowed to continue discriminating in their hiring, even if they get government money.

And yes, he says, religions outside the mainstream -- the Church of Scientology, the Nation of Islam, the Unification Church -- would be allowed to compete for government contracts just like any other.

But DiIulio argues that these concerns miss the point.

The vast majority of organizations that stand to benefit, he says, don't discriminate or push their religion on anyone. He likes to think of his office helping a community-based program that's denied government money because it stores lumber in a church parking lot.

"These organizations represent the volunteer spine of civil society," said DiIulio, on leave from the University of Pennsylvania, in a recent two-hour interview. "They are the places that bring the mentors, that bring the people who deliver meals to elderly shut-ins. They're the people who deal with the infirm elderly."

But people want to focus on the extreme cases, he said.

Critics, including civil libertarians and some religious leaders, say it is DiIulio who is missing the point. Concerns about entanglement between government and religion don't go away, they say, just because they may not apply to every situation.

"My tax dollars will ultimately be defending an organization that allows discrimination and that advocates a specific religious message," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, one of many critics who has met with DiIulio in recent weeks.

And she and others doubt there will be enough government money to provide secular alternatives across the country.

For his part, DiIulio is clearly still thinking through some of the issues that his initiative sparks.

He emphasizes that any tax dollars paid to religious programs will accompany individual participants who will have other secular choices. Is that the same as government funding religion?

"One could do the metaphysics of that and say 'it is, it isn't,'" he said, not landing on a firm conclusion of his own. "That's what we have courts of law for, and we'll find out."

And what about a program that doesn't require conversion but, perhaps, a prayer before meals? What about a Bible study mixed in with secular drug treatment? DiIulio calls these hybrids and isn't quite sure where they fit or what the rules should be.

"Let's say there's an AmeriCorps volunteer with a Catholic nun in an after-school program, and the nun has the kids singing religious songs and the AmeriCorps volunteer plays piano," he said. "Should we make a federal case out of it? Is it something we want to litigate? Maybe some people would say yes. I would say, gosh, if its function is to keep the kids there and safe and whole and it's not advancing religion ... I'm not sure."

For now, he's traveling the nation, talking through the issues.

"Let's have this dialogue, let's raise these concerns. Let's discuss and debate in good faith," he said. "I think it would be somewhat surprising if people were not asking questions."

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