WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (RNS) -- As President Bush's new Office of Faith-Based andCommunity Initiatives opens its doors Feb. 20, the fanfarethat greeted the notion of such an office is being replaced with aflurry of unanswered questions about what it will mean for providers andrecipients of federally funded social services.

Bush unveiled his plans for a White House office -- accompanied bysimilar new centers within five federal departments -- soon after hisinauguration. In one of his first presidential executive orders, Bushsaid the office is designed to give religious organizations an equalchance at federal funding for programs that will help those in need,such as the poor, the addicted and the victims of crime.

The office builds on the "charitable choice" provision of 1996welfare reform legislation that was crafted by new Attorney General JohnAshcroft when he was serving as a Republican senator from Missouri. Itwill be led by John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor whohas researched faith-based social programs.

Numerous church-state separationists already have raised theconstitutional questions that such proposals prompt. But before theexpected legal wrangling can begin, others are wondering about the basicmatters of time, energy and equity for already-busy religiousorganizations.

Do congregations have time for this? Will funded groups spend moretime filling out federal forms than doing acts of faith? Will the pot offunds available be equally shared?

Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology at Hartford Seminary inConnecticut, said congregational leaders and members often cite worshipand fellowship as the key areas of focus for their houses of worship.Even so, many are involved in some kind of partnership with othercongregations or secular entities to meet community needs.

"I think a lot of congregations are going to think about Bush'sproposal as something that is outside the range of possibilities for awhole variety of reasons," she said. "One is that it's not their primarymission and the other is that they may already feel like they are atcapacity for what they can do."

Ammerman, who spoke recently at a session at Hartford's TrinityCollege on religion's effect on social services, predicted that it ismore likely that congregations would leave the work proposed by Bush toother kinds of religious nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities -- longa partner with government on social service programs.

At Bush's announcement, the faith-based groups represented werediverse -- from Christian to Jewish to Muslim organizations -- butevangelical Protestant ministries such as Teen Challenge and PrisonFellowship had more of the limelight than mainline Protestant ones.

Will some of the long-standing Catholic and mainline Protestantgroups -- whose work has been shored up by federal funding -- now get asmaller piece of the federal pie?

"I think that also really remains to be seen," said Joanne Negstad,president and CEO of Lutheran Services in America, based in St. Paul,Minn. "I prefer to use the phrase 'opportunity for collaboration' ratherthan competition."

Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy studies at theCenter for Public Justice, whose organization has been helping the Bushadministration with its planning for the new office, predicts thatgroups that traditionally have not received federal funding may get somenow.

"This is leveling the playing field by including groups," he said."It's not to all of a sudden (allow) a new set of groups to get moneyand an old set of groups not to get money."

In addition to speculation about who might apply and who mightreceive funding, there is the matter of dealing with the piles ofpaperwork that will inevitably follow government checks. Experts wonderabout how monitoring and accounting will take place and whetherfraudulent practices may result.

Though the Bush proposal cites plans for "increased technicalassistance," Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at the University ofArizona, said "lots and lots of it" is necessary for congregations to beable to tackle grant writing and accounting responsibilities.

Briefing reporters after Bush unveiled his plans for the newoffice, former Indianapolis mayor and new administration official SteveGoldsmith referred to reducing "regulatory obstacles" for faith-basedgroups. But he also said funding would be made "available on aperformance and an accountability fashion." Goldsmith will serve as anadviser to Bush on faith-based issues.

The White House has yet to give any financial details, but seems tobe open to a diverse range of religious organizations applying forfederal assistance. When nontraditional groups like the Nation of Islamand the Church of Scientology knock on the federal door, it will beinteresting to see if the embrace of diversity holds.

There are some religious nonprofits that may not even be interestedin Bush's new plan.

"I would be very surprised if faith-based community organizationsget involved in taking any of that kind of money at all," said TimothyMatovina, associate professor of theology at the University of NotreDame in Indiana, who addressed the Hartford seminar. Rather thanfocusing on "Band-Aid" approaches to societal ills, these organizationslook at larger issues of justice and long-term solutions.

The lack of wholesale support for the faith-based office isreflected in a poll by Ellison Research that found Protestant pastorsare lukewarm about federal funding of religious groups: 17 percentstrongly supported it and 13 percent strongly opposed it, while 46percent offered weak support and 24 percent said they were mildlyopposed.

But Newsweek showed in another poll that 65 percent of adultssurveyed thought Bush's idea was a good one.

Carlson-Thies expects the months ahead to be a "creative period"that may bridge the gap between "overly bureaucratic government" and"understructured groups" in need of funding. His Annapolis, Md., officeis receiving calls from a range of interested parties -- large and smallcongregations as well as more established faith-based providers ofsocial services.

"I think this White House thing all of a sudden has kicked it intohigh gear," he said. "I think what we are now starting to see is a lotof folks who were very skeptical .
.. are now taking it a little moreseriously."