WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (AP) - Even before unveiling a plan, President Bush is trying to defuse criticism of his proposal to shift certain government-funded assistance programs to religious institutions.

He'll send the plan to Congress next week, and to build support, he met with religious leaders Thursday night at the home of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, leader of Washington-area Roman Catholics. On Friday, Bush was capping his first week in office with another pitch for his education plan, summoning 17 governors to the White House.

Just as his education plan includes a controversial voucher provision -- which would shift some public funds to giving private, including parochial, schools -- battle lines are being drawn over Bush's ``faith-based action'' plan.

Critics say its programs blur the constitutional lines separating church and state. They also say that religious groups cannot really take the place of government programs.

Even some churches are wary of strings that might be attached to money from the federal purse.

``Faith-based programs, no question about them, they do work,'' said Ted Fuson, pastor of the Culpeper, Va., Baptist Church, which is active in a variety of programs offering grants, food, clothing and furniture to the needy.

Still, Fuson said he is not interested in taking federal money. ``Eventually, somebody's going to want to have a say in how those funds are used, and we're not going to give them that freedom,'' he said.

The new president says religious groups must be part of the solution to society's ills.

``A compassionate society is one which recognizes the great power of faith,'' Bush told reporters Thursday. ``We in government must not fear faith-based programs, we must welcome faith-based programs.''

He says he wants to unleash ``armies of compassion'' by letting private and religious charities compete for government money to provide after-school programs, prison ministries and drug treatment.

Bush plans to establish an Office of Faith-Based Action to oversee the programs and distribute money, and wants each state to do the same. He has not said who will head the office, which is expected to spend several billion dollars over the next 10 years on new funding for programs and tax credits.

One program Bush holds up as an example is Faith Works, a non-denominational social service agency in Milwaukee that helps troubled fathers with drug treatment, job training and placement. Its residential program also offers clients parenting and marriage counseling.

Bush last summer visited the center, which claims an 80 percent success rate, and said it was ``exactly the kind of program I envision'' on a broader scale.

However, a religious liberties organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed suit in federal court, saying the program should be terminated because it conveys ``a message that the Christian religion is favored, preferred and promoted over other beliefs and nonbelief.''

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., one of the House's leading backers of the programs, said it is possible to implement these programs in a way that does promote any one religion.

``To change someone's life you often need to help them make a religious transformation, but tax money can't be used to proselytize,'' Souder said. ``The courts have been clear about the boundaries and we can follow them.''

Twice since winning the presidency, Bush has sat down with leaders of churches and synagogues that would form the heart of his program. The first one was last month in Austin, Texas, when he met with ministers and rabbis.

Thursday night, Bush, his wife, Laura, along with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Counsel Al Gonzales had dinner with McCarrick, who was elevated by Pope John Paul II to cardinal on Sunday. Their gathering, attended by four other church leaders, lasted more than 90 minutes.

Education was also on the agenda, Bush said.

``Education to the cardinal-to-be is a paramount concern,'' Bush said. ``He knows what we know: An educated child is one more likely to realize the greatness of America.''

Catholic officials support school vouchers, which would help paents pay the cost of Catholic school education. Religious conservatives in general support the voucher concept, while religious liberals tend to oppose them on church-state separation grounds and because they say vouchers would hurt public schools by reducing their funding.

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