But as lawmakers move to give religious organizations a greater role in government-backed social missions, critics are planning a court challenge to what they consider an attack on the wall separating church and state.
"It's absolutely incredible to believe you can have a religiously based program that isn't religious," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The group has tracked the handful of suits against state policies allowing religious organizations to provide social services.
So-called "charitable choice" plans let such groups provide social services with government funding without having to alter the religious character of the organization. Presidential contenders Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore have embraced the idea and the concept is gaining ground in statehouses.
Civil liberties groups charge it blurs the line between church and state, and allows groups spending government money to discriminate against employees that don't adhere to certain beliefs. Yet there's also resistance from some religious conservatives who say government money threatens groups' religious freedoms.
So far, states are getting the main legal challenges.
-A Wisconsin lawsuit filed this month seeks to block the use of state government money for Faith Works, a Milwaukee program touted by Bush that helps troubled fathers with drug treatment and job training.
-A suit against Texas, where Bush is governor, alleges that a state welfare-to-work program includes Bible-based lectures.
-A federal court suit in Kentucky challenges the state's relationship with the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, which fired a lesbian counselor in 1998. The suit says Alicia Pedreira faced religious discrimination from an employer receiving state funds.
"Alicia's firing illustrates the dangers of charitable choice," said Eric Ferrero, spokesman for ACLU's lesbian and gay rights project. "There's quite a cross-section of people who could potentially face discrimination, and it's funded by the taxpayers."
"We are about a year away from an ideal case," said Lynn. A long-standing legal principle prevents the group from suing over new laws; an individual believed to be harmed by those laws must file suit.
"There's no doubt, eventually we will have to go to the Supreme Court," said Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice, which tracks charitable choice laws. He said there's no exact count of groups providing federally funded services, but the laws do hold them accountable for proper spending and protection of clients' rights.
"This is not by any means tossing our money into the offering plates of churches," said Carlson-Thies. "They have to compete. They have to show they are competent."
A law signed two weeks ago by President Clinton allows religious groups to offer mental health services for youths.
But other measures could pass in Congress' lame duck session: Literacy and parental counseling could be included in a must-pass budget bill covering health and education spending. And a plan for more substance-abuse programs remains in the tax package Congress may consider after the election.
Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican who has sponsored measures for education programs, says religious groups have the community ties to offer social services and shouldn't be scared off by legal battles.
"You cannot discriminate and use government programs for proselytizing," he said in a recent debate on plans to include such groups in programs fostering good fatherhood.
But if a group "happens to have a religious component to their program not funded by the federal government, it does not mean that they have to drop everything else," he said.
Bush proposes an Office of Faith-Based Action to extend the role and reach of churches and other religious groups. Gore says states using limited public dollars can enlist such groups for basic welfare services as long as clients aren't forced into rites like prayers and readings and they have a secular alternative in the community.
And Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is co-sponsor of a related plan. Lieberman, who has discussed faith and politics on the campaign trail, would give religious groups more room to compete with other groups for federal drug treatment money included in the tax bill.