"We will never fund the religious activities of any group, but if people of faith propose to provide social services, we will not discriminate against them." So said President George W. Bush on Monday morning, announcing the creation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The action fulfilled a promise Bush made during the 2000 campaign and is certain to ignite new controversy regarding the separation of church and state.

President Bush named John J. DiIulio Jr., a sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania, to head the new office. Bush also released a package of new rules regarding faith-based or "charitable choice" funding that he will ask Congress to pass. Since the White House office itself is largely symbolic, the new rules--if enacted--might have the larger impact.

Several forms of politics swirled around the announcement. First was the choice of directors for the new office. DiIulio, whose specialty is criminology, was named over former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, director of domestic policy for the Bush campaign team. DiIulio is a highly regarded researcher whose background in the academy, rather than church politics, may lend the new office a nondenominational feeling: DiIulio supports federal funding of some faith-based action, but he is known to be concerned about maintaining church-state boundaries. A conservative Catholic, registered Democrat, and strongly pro-life, DiIulio becomes the first intellectual named to a major post by the new president. It is unclear whether he has agreed to a long-term appointment. DiIulio is said to be worried that serving more than one year would cost him his tenure at Penn.

Until a few days ago, the post was expected to go to Goldsmith, who not only was assumed to be in line for an important appointment, but being Jewish would have blunted criticism that the new office would be a cover for Christian evangelicals. But Goldsmith is divorced, not an ideal credential for a faith office, and pro-life observers feel he has been inadequately pro-life or may be a closeted supporter of abortion choice. Goldsmith, President Bush announced, would head an as-yet-unnamed commission on social services issues, and he is expected to receive other duties with the new administration.

The question of faith-based social services gained national prominence in 1996, when Congress passed the "charitable choice" legislation, paving the way for federal funds to be awarded to religion-affiliated organizations that help the poor, such as Catholic Charities. Previously, such organizations had to establish wholly secular subsidiaries to receive government funds; the charitable-choice bill allowed support to go directly to the organizations, so long as they did not proselytize or discriminate against those not of their faiths. Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft, then a senator, sparked considerable dispute at the time by proposing an amendment that would have allowed charitable-choice providers to take federal funds yet discriminate against those from other faiths; Ashcroft's amendment was defeated.

Since 1996, a broad range of politicians, including Bush, President Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore, have endorsed some version of faith-based services, and studies have shown them to be as effect as, or more effective than, traditional government services for the poor.

Many have also protested that church-state barriers create ridiculous restrictions. For instance, Goldsmith, who started an interdenominational faith-based project in Indianapolis, complained that a state regulator tired to shut down a city-funded summer-jobs training program that met in church basements because participants were saying grace before lunch. "Cursing was legal, but praying was not," Goldsmith said of the program.

Concerned with an interdenominational outlook, President Bush invited a broad range of representatives to Monday's announcement, including Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and evangelicals (for the White House list of the participants, click here). Nonbelievers and civil libertarians were conspicuously absent.

And though many in the faith world support faith-based funding, as might be expected, and many in the civil-liberties community oppose it, the rest of the politics are not necessarily predictable. Considerable elements within the spiritual community worry that government funding of faith-related organizations will backfire on religion, by giving government a foot in the door of church administration (for details on religious unease with faith-based programs, click here).

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and a leading social-justice evangelical, today endorsed the basic Bush proposal. But even some conservatives have expressed worry. Rep. Chet Edwards, a conservative Democrat who represents Bush's home district in Texas, said a few weeks ago that "I am extremely uncomfortable with anything that blurs the line between church and state," noting that faith is strong in the United States in no small part because it has nothing to do with government.

Bush has executive power to establish the new White House office without congressional or court approval, and most constitutional scholars think there is no problem with its immediate mandate, since the office only seeks to prevent discrimination against faith-based organizations and does not guarantee them funding. Once the Bush administration has actually granted funding to a group with close religious affiliations, a legal test case is likely to be filed.

Whether Bush's vision of faith-based funding will stand a court challenge may depend on whether his modifications to existing charitable-choice law--which judges generally have upheld--are put into force. Bush further proposed today that Congress grant a $500-per-person tax credit for charitable donations (currently such donations are deductible but do not generate tax credits; a $500 deduction returns about $150 to the typical taxpayer, while a $500 credit would return the full $500); that Congress create a special charitable-deduction category for the 70% of taxpayers who don't itemize (the standard deduction already includes an averaged deduction for charity); that rules allowing faith-affiliated organizations to compete with secular ones for federal grants be loosened; that rules on how faith-affiliated organizations use federal grants be loosened, though not to allow religious discrimination; and finally that charitable-choice funding be extended from social service organizations, where it is available today (roughly, aid to the poor), to also include prison and housing programs. Currently, faith-based prison programs, such as Chuck Colson's highly admired InnerChange, must be privately funded and are restricted in some states. If successful, the Bush initiative would expand their use and financial base.

The tax aspects of President Bush's plan will likely to rolled into the tax cut debate. Since no one opposes encouraging gifts to charity, it will simply be a matter of what numbers congressional negotiators can agree on. But the proposed loosening of restrictions on what spiritual organizations can do with public money is another matter. It would send both government and religion into uncharted waters, and uncharted waters are a place where you can lose your way.

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