WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 — The Bush administration plans to allow religious groups for the first time to use federal housing money to help build centers where religious worship is held, as long as part of the building is also used for social services.
The policy shift, which was made in a rule that the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed this month, significantly expands the administration's contentious religion-based initiative.
The White House says it wants to end discrimination against religious groups. Opponents say the policy breaches the separation of church and state.
Current regulations generally prohibit religious groups from using federal housing and community development grants, which totaled $7.7 billion last year, to build or rehabilitate structures. The new rules, still subject to final approval by housing officials, allow the use of federal aid to acquire, rehabilitate or build centers used for religious and specifically approved nonreligious activities, so long as no federal money is used for the religious section.
A church could erect a building using federal money to create a shelter for the homeless in one part and private money to create a sanctuary in another part, officials said. A synagogue could use a grant to rehabilitate part of its building for a counseling center for AIDS patients or the poor. A Muslim group could apply for federal money to upgrade the lighting and equipment in a room in its mosque to allow it to be used as an counseling center for single parents.
"This is probably the most clearly unconstitutional aspect of the White House's faith-based initiative that we've seen up to this point," said Christopher Anders, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "What this does is take federal money that is serving the neediest of the needy in our society and diverts it to the bricks-and-mortar construction of churches and sanctuaries and other places of worship."
The public has until March 7 to comment before the department is scheduled to issue its final approval.
Theoretically, Saudis could set up a mosque in Florida with a federally-funded flight school and counseling center attached to it. Imagine the convenience!