(RNS) Few experts would dispute that faith-based groups provide crucial social services ranging from drug treatment to soup kitchens, but precious little research exists on whether such groups are more effective than their secular or government counterparts.

A Philadelphia-based foundation hopes to answer that question with a $6.3 million grant to compile a "comprehensive, impartial body of research" on the effectiveness of faith-based social service groups. The project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, will be overseen by the Rockefeller Institute of Government based at the State University of New York in Albany.

The initiative, called the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, comes as Congress prepares to debate a scaled-back version of President Bush's "faith-based initiative." A compromise crafted by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., provides charitable giving incentives and help for social service providers. It does not, however, contain a provision that allows religious groups to discriminate in hiring or skirt anti-discrimination laws like the original Bush plan. After his plan languished in the Senate for months, Bush endorsed the Lieberman-Santorum bill as a first step.

Although the new bill has been presented, questions on faith-based programs are likely to linger. Luis Lugo, Pew's director of religion programs, hopes the new project will help frame the future debate. "The reality is that we do not really know enough about faith-based social services -- how effective they are when compared with secular alternatives, what they do best, or even the degree to which the faith factor is interwoven into their work -- nor about the possible legal parameters of religious groups competing for federal dollars," he said.

The project will focus on three main areas. George Washington University Law School will track and analyze legal developments related to faith-based funding. Search for Common Ground, a consensus-building group that recently found 29 areas of agreement from the left, right and center, will sponsor a series of meetings to bring together critics and supporters to talk about the issues involved.

In addition, the Roundtable will sponsor a Web site with "up-to-date information on the role of faith-based organizations in our social welfare system, including project reports and links to legal opinions in major court cases," according to a press release.

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