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ACLU worried about Bush's faith-based initiative

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday it is gravely concerned about the constitutionality of President Bush's faith-based charities proposal.

One of its main objections is that the proposal could, for the first time, allow organizations that are not required to comply with federal civil rights laws to receive federal funds.

"Bush wants to level the playing field," said Terri Schroder, legislative analyst for the ACLU. "But it's not level. Civil rights laws are relaxed" for faith-based organizations, she said.

A provision of the Civil Rights Act exempts religious organizations from complying with federal civil rights law. Schroder is concerned that this provision could allow faith-based organizations that oppose interracial marriage, for example, to refuse to hire people in such a union and still receive public money. However, a charity not sponsored by a religion could be in violation of federal civil rights law if it refused to hire someone for being in an interracial marriage.

The ACLU said the Bush proposal also could put the government in the position of determining what is a legitimate religious organization. For example, by determining that an organization sponsored by the Jewish faith is eligible to receive federal funding and another sponsored by a tiny Christian sect is not, the U.S. government could be deciding that one set of beliefs is a religion and the other is not.

"We're very worried," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office.

The ACLU also expressed concerns that the government would have the resources to ensure that public funds are going to the charity arm and not the church arm.

In the case of a faith-based program to treat addiction, Murphy said, "How can we be sure the funds go to drug treatment and not to the minister?"

The ACLU also sought to dispel the argument that faith-based charitable organizations already are receiving public funds.

"It's misleading to the public," Murphy said.

The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, she said, are associated with religious faiths but have been required by law to set up a separate, secular organization with nonprofit status to receive the public funds.

With 501(C)(3) nonprofit status, "spin-offs" of faith-based charities can get federal money in a constitutional way, Murphy said.

Despite its objections, the ACLU has not yet presented a legal challenge to the Bush proposal, said Schroder, since it is unclear how it will be implemented.

And, before there is litigation, the ACLU is hoping to get strong public support.

Murphy acknowledged that there are difficulties in making the public aware of the possible constitutional issues around the Bush proposal.

In an era where national candidates for public office casually and frequently invoke their faith in public, "people are more comfortable with religion in public life," she said.

However, she said she was confident that once people were educated about the pitfalls of the Bush strategy, there would be wider public opposition to it.

The ACLU said its strategy would be to continue to educate the public, to push for hearings on the issue and call for greater dialogue with members of Congress.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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