WASHINGTON -- Is the much-touted White House faith-based initiativea partisan effort that will silence the black church's political voice?Or is it a welcome reinforcement to social services long provided byAfrican-American congregations in the nation's inner cities and beyond?

As the debate over government funding of religious social servicescontinues, African-American churches are lining up on either side ofwhat appears to be a growing divide over whether the efforts spearheadedby the White House and developing on Capitol Hill should be embraced orshunned.

When the White House initiative was unveiled shortly after PresidentBush took office, a consortium of mostly theologically conservativeblack ministers was in the limelight voicing support for efforts toincrease partnerships between their churches and departments of thefederal government. But more recently, some of the more traditionalforces in the African-American religious community have started askingquestions.

The Congress of National Black Churches, a coalition of eighthistorically black denominations, is drafting a formal statement that issure to add to the debate over plans to expand the access religiousorganizations have to federal funds for their social service programs.

"About a dozen questions are raised about the faith-based initiativeand with what we know about it now, our position ranges from somewherebetween alarm to caution to militant opposition," said Bishop John HurstAdams, chairman emeritus and founder of the Washington-based congress,and the senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Adams said congress leaders wonder whether the initiative may leadto constitutional problems as well as greater competition for a limitedamount of funds.

The Religious Affairs Committee of the National Association for theAdvancement of Colored People has formulated a resolution that statesthat "the NAACP opposes any and all faith-based and charitable choiceinitiatives which do not include traditional and well-establishedemployment rights, civil rights and anti-discrimination protectionswhich can be enforced by our nation's courts."

The Rev. Julius Hope, national director of religious affairs for theNAACP, says he's suspicious of what seems like sudden Republicaninterest in helping black churches.

"We have to be very suspect as relates to charitable choice," hesaid of the 5-year-old concept in welfare reform legislation that hasallowed more funding of faith groups. "It could be like a Trojan horse,divide and conquer. ... That's where we are now. You've got some clergyfor it, some clergy against it."

The Rev. Eugene Rivers of Dorchester, Mass., a member of thetheologically conservative consortium that supports the White Houseinitiative dismisses those suspicions, noting the "charitable choice"provision was first approved by former President Clinton. "How come thevery program that was initiated by Clinton somehow becomes transformedbecause now you've got Bush dealing with it?"

Rivers, who said he voted for former Vice President Al Gore in thelast presidential election, argued support of the federal faith-basedinitiatives relates to policy more than party.

"The reality is that smart black people will deal with all politicalleaders on an issue-by-issue basis," said Rivers, a Church of God inChrist pastor who serves as the general secretary of the Pan AfricanCharismatic Evangelical Congress.

Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, the pastor of a nondenominational churchin West Palm Beach, Fla., agrees. He helped bring hundreds of clergy --more than half of them African-American -- to a summit on faith-basedissues on Capitol Hill in late April.

"People are fearing that religious partnership is creatingRepublican partisanship," said Ray, founder of the National Center forFaith Based Initiative, a year-old network of clergy that intends tofoster economic and social development in local communities.

"I don't see that. Whether it is Democratic or Republican, goodpolicies need to be embraced."

Before the Congress of National Black Churches board met to developits statement, the president of one of its member denominations declaredhis opposition to the White House plans.

"This initiative can only be seen as another effort to muffle theprophetic voice of the African-American church," said the Rev. C. MackeyDaniels, in a recent Baptist Joint Committee newsletter.

"I am convinced that charitable choice is akin to Judas accepting30 pieces of silver to betray our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Daniels is a member of the board of the committee, whose executivedirector recently testified before a House subcommittee opposingcharitable choice.
Ray, however, said it is "hysteria" to think the black church couldbe silenced. "Our contract with government does not supersede our covenant withGod," he said.