WASHINGTON -- 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 the groups have entirely secular missions and some organizations were surprised to find their names on a list of faith-based groups provided 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, S.C.
Other grant recipients are religious, offering social service programs the government may have deemed too religious to receive money before President Bush took office.
Visitors to TMM Family Services in Tucson, 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 is the first detailed tally of the dollars behind the faith-based initiative.
Elected with the strong support of religious conservatives, Bush came to office promising to open the government's checkbook to religious groups that provide social services. Such groups often do a better job serving the poor, he says.
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. Bush tried to get Congress to change that, but when it refused, 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, Pa. The group was awarded $10.3 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.
It is unclear how much religion is too much when government money is involved. The courts have issued mixed rulings. The administration says a group can sponsor worship and other religious activities as long as they are separated by time and location from activities paid for by the government.
In New Haven, Conn., Women in Search of Health Education and Spirituality got almost $500,000 to help AIDS patients 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, said a spiritual connection is emphasized. ''Generally, that's the key to recovery," she said.
The grants on the White House list were not specifically targeted to religious organizations. Rather, 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.
An analysis of the $1.17 billion and nearly 150 interviews in 30 states with grant recipients found:
Many are well-established, large social service providers that have received federal money for decades. More than 80 percent of recipients at HHS had received federal money before. At HUD, the figure was 93 percent.
Two programs account for half of the $1.17 billion total: A HUD program known as Section 202 that builds housing for low-income poor people, and Head Start, a large preschool program for poor children.
Many organizations insist they do not belong on a list of ''faith-based organizations," even though they may have religious roots.