THE DOOR that long ago opened to allow church groups to get government money is now likely to open wider. That's not entirely a bad thing, although it calls for caution.
President Bush has reignited the debate over separation of church and state with his proposals to encourage nonprofits, including religious "armies of compassion" to help the government fight poverty and other social ills.
It's an especially healthy debate in that the divide not only protects against favoritism toward a specific religion, but shields religion from undue government interference.
Government money already goes to churches, synagogues and mosques that run Head Start and other programs. And in 1996, the federal government specifically began encouraging religious involvement in welfare reform.
So, Mr. Bush's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives in the White House and the similar offices to be established in five Cabinet agencies don't constitute a major new policy.
Key to making his proposals work are several factors, including the degree to which voluntary organizations can and want to assume a greater role as service providers.
There are also the issues of accountability and religious freedom. Standards for performance on government contracts can't be lowered for religious charities -- the danger being that they turn into another form of political patronage.
At the same time, there is the difficult task of defining a line over which we must not step.
Recognition that there may be a spiritual component to drug rehabilitation, for example, can't be an excuse for infringing on religious freedom.
Faith-based organizations deserve support in their efforts to help the poor and others -- as Mr. Bush's charitable tax-deduction proposal clearly acknowledges. It's important, though, that the president acknowledge worries about the dangers of expanded government aid to religious organizations.