Food, clothing and everyday life skills come with Bible study and prayer at Sunshine Mission in St. Louis. The mission staff dispenses spiritual sustenance along with material help to the homeless and families in need.

The shelter is nondenominational, yet its faith-based emphasis means it doesn't qualify for government funding. For years, other charities have obtained federal dollars by creating separate, tax-exempt operations that downplayed or erased religion from their programs.But that could change across America as states implement a provision in the 1996 welfare reform law dubbed "charitable choice" that lets churches and religious groups compete for government dollars to deliver social programs.

"When we looked around to see what worked, we found that many of the very best programs were associated with faith-based institutions," said Sen. John Aschroft, R-Mo., the champion of this alternative.

But charitable choice worries civil-liberties groups and others who view it as a battering ram ready to topple the constitutional wall separating church and state.

Opponents say the danger is that welfare recipients could be compelled to profess faith or join in religious activity. Ashcroft and other supporters note that charitable choice prohibits churches from requiring participation as a condition of benefits.

As Congress this year considers extending charitable choice to other social programs - such as rehabilitation for juvenile offenders - civil-liberties groups are preparing a legal challenge that could slow or thwart its implementation.