The bill, being pushed by a number of liberal advocacy groups ranging from the Children's Defense Fund to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, would authorize up to $2.5 billion in assistance to states to improve child-care programs as well as provide low income families with a "child care certificate" (voucher) to subsidize out-of-pocket child care expenditures.

But some groups - notably the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Baptist Convention and Americans United for Separation of Church and State - argue that Congress, in its haste to pass some kind of day-care measure, is preparing legislation that will be found unconstitutional.

"The bill falls flat on its constitutional face," said Barry Lynn of the ACLU. "This is about as grim a church-state problem as the Congress has generated in a long time."

The primary reason, according to Lynn and other opponents, is that the legislation provides massive subsidies for churches, in violation of the constitutional church-state separation mandate.

It is estimated that at least 50 percent of non-home child care services occur in religious institutions, and they would be the major beneficiaries of the program.

According to Robert Maddox of Americans United, the bill "raises the possibility of taxpayers being forced to pay for the religious education of children."

"As a practical matter," according to Americans United, "it is absolutely impossible for government to determine whether a church-affiliated day-care program is too religious to receive federal funds.

"But equally intolerable is government involvement and intrusion in church affairs, the ultimate effect of this legislation" that would be made necessary to police the programs, which are "advancing religion" in defiance of the Constitution.

Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., one of the few House members to raise, unsuccessfully, church-state objections during committee debate, said it is "totally unrealistic to believe that church-related centers will not, intentionally or inadvertently, instill religious values in little children.

"That's OK with me as long as the government doesn't fund it," he said.

Other objections to the bill center on provisions that allow daycare programs to practice religious discrimination, both in hiring and admissions, and still receive funds.

Under provisions of the bill, religiously affiliated daycare programs would be able to restrict hiring for the centers to members of the sponsoring faith.

"Its absolutely unbelievable that they (sponsors) can ignore the use of federal monies being used to hire people on the basis of religion," Lynn said.

Efforts by Rep. James Jeffords, R-Vt., to include a non-discriminatory provision to the bill were beaten in committee on a 29-3 vote.

"I think members should be embarrassed by that vote," Lynn said, "and it was clear from the body language that they were."

"We're in favor of childcare," the ACLU's Lynn said. "But do it in the way the Supreme Court requires. Don't have people have their daycare taken away from them because the court took it away."