In the privacy of their prayer breakfasts and retreats, when conservative religiouspeople talk about the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, whatdo they worry about most?

Not federal money going to Scientologists.Not being told they can't evangelize people they serve at soup kitchens.Not even filling out government paperwork.

Should publicly funded faith-based groups be allowed to discriminate against homosexuals in hiring?
No, it's a civil rights issue.
Yes, if their faith opposes homosexuality.
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It's homosexuals. Conservatives' biggest fear is that by partnering with the federal government, they may lose control over who they are allowed to hire and fire--especially when it comes to gays.

Gay rights may seem an unlikely battlefield for this issue, but it has the potential to sink President Bush's faith-based initiatives altogether. On this issue, Bush faces a frontal assault from both left and right--and satisfying one side ensures that the other will want no part of the plan.

"[Evangelicals] worry about that more than almost any other concern," says John Green, a religion and politics expert at the University of Akron.

"It's not worth getting government funds if we have to hire people diametrically opposed to what we believe," said Janet Folger, national director of the Center for Reclaiming America, an affiliate of Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale. Folger was the architect of a widely publicized full-page newspaper ad campaign three years ago urging homosexuals to change their orientation.

And it's not just evangelicals: Orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics, among others, have similar concerns. Control of who they hire is critical to religious groups' ability to control their message--and to equate that with bigotry is "incredibly reckless," says Nathan Diament, president of the Institute of Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, a Jewish organization

"This is not bigotry," Diament says. "This is religious freedom. It's the right of a religious organization to define itself."

It may become a litmus test issue among liberals as well. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a strong supporter of faith-based action, told Beliefnet recently that he could not support legislation that discriminated against gays. "I feel strongly that we can't adopt a system here that allows religious groups to meet a lower standard of civil rights protection than nonreligious groups," he said.

Gay rights organizations are already organizing to influence the faith-based debate and are sure to redouble their efforts if the new legislation omits protections for gay employees. "If a certain sectarian entity wants to discriminate, I say, 'Go for it,'" says David Elliot, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "but don't use my tax dollars to do it."

This isn't just about raw power politics. Though the legalities are complex, it comes down to a simple, theological question: Is opposition to homosexuality a central tenet of faith for some religions? While courts and politicians don't like to endorse "discrimination" against people, they have so far given groups a great deal of leeway to hire and fire consistent with their basic beliefs.

At stake for the combatants are civil rights on one hand and biblical interpretation on the other. These are not exactly issues that lend themselves to compromise and middle ground.