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Religious groups to get funds for building

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WASHINGTON — 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 controversial faith-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, for building or rehabilitating structures. The new rules, still subject to final approval by housing officials, allow the awarding of federal aid to acquire, rehabilitate or construct facilities that are used for both religious and specifically approved non-religious activities, so long as no federal money is used for the religious part of the project.

A church could erect a building, using federal funds to create a shelter for the homeless in one part and private money to create a sanctuary in another, officials said.

Bush administration officials, who have made religion-based initiatives a cornerstone of their agenda, said that religious organizations have historically been discriminated against in the fierce competition for federal grants and that the rule change is simply aimed at leveling the playing field to allow them to compete for the same pool of money.

"We see no reason to exclude religious organizations from participation in these programs if there can be a reasonable mechanism to ensure that a program has no particular religious connotation one way or another," Richard A. Hauser, HUD's general counsel, said in an interview.

Opponents said the change forces the government into the difficult position of having to determine what proportion of a building is used for worship and what is legitimately used for social services.

"You run into the nightmarish problem of having the government monitor what goes on inside churches" and sanctuaries, said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who vowed to seek hearings on the rule change. "Are we going to start sending in the inspector general to charge people with committing a bar mitzvah?"