WASHINGTON, April 26 (RNS)--More than 850 clergy from across the country havesigned a petition to President Bush and Congress criticizing proposalsto publicly fund faith-based organizations.

Leaders of several groups who have partnered to create the CoalitionAgainst Religious Discrimination unveiled the open letter at a newsconference Tuesday (April 24), the day before a scheduled summitco-chaired by J.C. Watts, R-Okla., co-sponsor of a bill that wouldpermit faith-based groups receiving federal funding to discriminate inhiring.

"These provisions would entangle religion and government in anunprecedented and perilous way," the letter reads. "Exemptinggovernment-funded religious institutions from employment laws banningdiscrimination on the basis of religion weakens our nation's civilrights protections for those seeking to provide assistance to those inneed."

The religious leaders worry that the proposed legislation and theplans of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiativeswill lead to unconstitutional entanglements of church and state as wellas divisions among religious groups competing for public funds.

"Where is the compassion in creating a system where those in needmust choose between receiving desperately needed services and thecontinuation of their civil and religious rights?" asked the Rev. C.Welton Gaddy, executive director of The Interfaith Alliance. "Where isthe constitutional integrity in a religiously diverse nation when thegovernment picks and chooses which religions to fund and which toexclude?"

The list of signatories includes, thus far, representatives ofChristian, Jewish, Buddhist and other congregations.

"This is a broad spectrum that runs everywhere from theologicallyconservative Baptists to several Wiccan priests and priestesses," saidthe Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United forSeparation of Church and State. "This is about as dramatic a number andcollection of people of faith -- ministers, priests rabbis, others inthe religious community that I've ever seen come around a single issuein such a short period of time."

Lynda Kosh, who runs a program at Metro Church in Indianapolis,where Bush laid out his faith-based proposal during his campaign,attended the news conference and said afterward that she disagrees withthe petition signers.

"It's about choice," she said of the recipients of social services."They can choose a provider that is faith-based or they can choose aprovider that is not."