Washington, Sept. 3--(AP) Acting without congressional approval to implement President Bush's stalled "faith-based initiative," five Cabinet agencies are writing rules into federal law that lawmakers have balked at. The rules will help churches and other religious groups obtain millions of federal social service dollars with few strings attached.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials will let churches, synagogues and mosques use federal money for programs infused with religion and consider religion in hiring and firing workers. It only makes sense, said Roberta Jones, the president of Cleveland-based Life Alternative, Inc., one of 562 applicants for the new grant program. Imagine, she said, if a domestic violence victim comes in for help. "The first thing I'm going to do is pray with you," said Jones, whose group helps churches apply for government grants. "I'm now using my religious art to really minister to this person. I'm going to go to the very thing that I'm comfortable with."

HHS officials say there's no problem using tax dollars for a program in which prayer is central. Congress has refused to endorse that position, which is hotly disputed among Americans. If tax dollars are used for secular elements of the program--like a computer or a van--the rest can have a religious base, said Robert Polito, director of the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "We wouldn't be called the faith-based office if we weren't trying to see how we can partner with the faith community," he said. "We don't have to take the temperature of the religiosity of the program."

Congressional action on Bush's effort is stalled over such questions: How much religion is too much when government money is involved? Also in contention is whether to let government-funded religious groups discriminate in hiring.

The House approved a bill with most of what Bush wanted. But in the Senate, supporters have failed to get a vote on even the watered-down version of the bill they introduced.

In the meantime, HHS is writing rules on its own, and other agencies are preparing to do the same. Critics are furious. "The administration seems to say, `We couldn't get the votes in Congress, so we're going to hijack every dollar we can and move it into faith-based ministries,"' said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, officials are set to rewrite regulations governing eight grant programs that now bar religious groups if they are unwilling to hire people of all faiths. "That creates an impediment to faith-based organizations that's unnecessary," said Steven Wagner, director of HUD's "faith-based" office.

Similarly, at the Education Department, officials are interpreting a new federal law on after-school programs as allowing groups to use religion in their hiring decisions. That prompted protests from Democrats who say they specifically barred this discrimination under a carefully negotiated compromise. "Unfortunately, the department's draft guidance interpretation ... effectively nullifies this compromise language," Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrats on the Senate and House education committees, wrote to Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Initiatives also are advancing at the Justice and Labor departments. However, the effort is moving most dramatically at HHS, where there is new money to spend. Last year, Congress allocated $30 million for technical assistance to help religious groups learn how to apply for government money. But HHS added a twist when it invited applications for the money. The groups that win large grants can pass an unlimited amount of it to small religious groups, which may use it for startup costs and for "operations"--in essence, running programs to address a wide range of social problems with no congressional guidance on the church vs. state issue.

Even the House bill, which included much of what Bush wanted, would require that programs separate their religious elements, so those who wish to participate in the secular part alone can do so. But HHS is making no such requirement, said Polito, who ran an urban ministry in New York before coming to HHS. Polito also set up Faith Works in Milwaukee, a program partly struck down by a federal court for failing to separate religious and secular parts of its programming.

Further, Polito said, programs need not set up separate corporations to handle the government money, and they need not open their work force to people of all faiths. He said HHS plans to award 25 grants by the end of September.

It all makes for a "giant faith-based slush fund," Lynn said. The program was never supposed to be funding individual churches, he said. "I think that's a real scandal."

But the looser restrictions make sense to Roberta Jones, who helps churches set up nonprofit corporations. "The Baptists are going to be with the Baptists. The Presbyterians are going to be with the Presbyterians. The Lutherans are going to be with the Lutherans. In reality, you're not going to find an Arab working in a Jewish synagogue," she said. "People feel their religious belief outweighs the government."

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