The government gave more than $1 billion in 2003 to organizations it considers "faith-based," with some going to programs where prayer and spiritual guidance are central and some to organizations that do not consider themselves religious at all.
Many of these groups have entirely secular missions and some organizations were surprised to find their names on a list of faith-based groups provided to The Associated Press by the White House.
"Someone has obviously designated us a faith-based organization, but we don't recognize ourselves as that," said Stacey Denaux, executive director of Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina.
Other grant recipients are religious, offering social service programs that the government may have deemed too religious to receive money before President Bush took office.
Visitors to TMM Family Services in Tucson, Arizona, which received $25,000 for housing counseling, are greeted by a picture of Jesus and quotes from the Bible.
"We believe that people being connected to the faith of their choice is important to them having a productive life," said Don Strauch, an ordained minister and executive director of the group, which offers a variety of social services. "Just because we take government money doesn't mean we back down on that philosophy."
All told, faith-based organizations were awarded $1.17 billion in 2003. That is about 12 percent of the $14.5 billion spent on social programs that qualify for faith-based grants in five federal departments. White House officials expect the total to grow.
The list of 2003 grant recipients provided to The AP is the first detailed tally of the dollars behind this "faith-based initiative."
President Bush came to office promising to open government's checkbook to fund social services provided by religious groups who he believes often do a better job serving the poor.
Civil libertarians fear the government will wind up paying for worship, eroding the constitutional separation between church and state.
Jim Towey, who directs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Bush administration has been clear that "government money is not to fund religious activities."
"This is a culture change in the way government provides social services," he said. "There's always going to be a very delicate balance."
In the past, government has refrained from giving money directly to religious groups, but has required that they set up independent, secular organizations to get taxpayer dollars. President Bush tried to get Congress to change that. Congress refused, at which point he unilaterally put many of his changes into effect.
To entice religious groups to apply for grants, the White House hosted several conferences explaining the relaxed rules and put out a book listing programs they might want to apply for.
"We feel much more at ease," said Louis Wonderly, past president of the Luther House Foundation of Southern Chester County, Pennsylvania. The group was awarded $10.3 million (euro7.6 million) to build an apartment building for low-income older people.
"We won't have to say, `Oh my goodness, is it terrible to have a cross hanging on a bulletin board?"' Wonderly said.
Legally speaking, it is unclear how much religion is too much religion when government money is involved. The courts have issued mixed rulings. The Bush administration says a group getting federal money can sponsor worship and other religious activities as long as they are separated by time and location from activities paid by the government.
In New Haven, Conn., Women in Search of Health Education and Spirituality got almost $500,000 to help AIDS patients who are just out of drug treatment. Each session begins with a daily affirmation, where each participant chooses something to read, religious or secular.
The program's director, Patricia Lafayette, says a spiritual connection is emphasized. "Generally, that's the key to recovery," she said.
"We pray anytime someone asks," added Joyce Poole, director of the AIDS Interfaith Network, which sponsors the program. "Some clients walk in and say they need a prayer and a hug and we stop whatever we're doing for them."
At the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, Life Connections got more than $50,000 to help inmates who are about to be freed and who volunteer to participate and pick one of six religious programs to follow. Activities include a two-week spiritual retreat and six weeks of intense religious study.
The White House declined comment on whether these particular programs were appropriate.
The grants on the White House list were not specifically targeted to religious organizations. The list includes all groups believed to be faith-based that won competitive federal grants open to all applicants.
Specifically, it includes recipients of competitive grants administered by five federal departments: Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Labor and Justice. Not included are the billions sent to the states for distribution.
An AP analysis of the $1.17 billion and nearly 150 interviews in 30 states with grant recipients found:
Some have no connection at all to religion, such as You Gotta Believe!, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based group that finds permanent homes for teenagers in foster care. The name is not intended to invoke a belief in God, but the belief that there is a home somewhere for every child.
White House officials said the list included groups which had identified themselves as faith-based and groups which officials thought religious based on their names.
"We intentionally avoid references to God and his works in our educational material so that no one will feel intimidated or avoid our services because they're of a different religion," said Sue Ortiz, a home ownership counselor at Inner City Christian Federation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which got $65,000 in 2003 and $150,000 in 2004.
But religion inspires their work, she said: "We do what we do because of God's love."
By Laura Meckler