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 non-denominational, 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 oper-ations 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 Ashcroft, R-Mo., the champion of this alternative.

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

"The current system doesn't preclude some involvement by religious organizations, but there's a danger involved in direct government subsidy of a religious act," said Elliot Mincberg, general counsel for People for the American Way, a civil liberties group.

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.

"It has the potential to become the primary church-state issue of the next 10 to 15 years," said Derek Davis, director of Baylor University's church-state institute. "This kind of direct funding to churches to perform any kind of service is unprecedented."

Ashcroft's home state so far has chosen not to implement charitable choice.

But Jim Clarkson, who runs the Sunshine Mission, said he would welcome more money to expand the mission's community outreach program, which helps 193 families in nearby north St. Louis neighborhoods.

"The more money we have, the more families we can . . . touch and the more food, clothing and practical training we're going to be able to provide," said Clarkson, who makes no apologies for the emphasis on religion. "their belief in God . . . is what helps them stay strong and stay off drugs and stay with the program."

The Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State argues that the Constitution prohibits direct government funding of churches or synagogues. The First Amendment holds that government should not unduly interfere with individuals' religion and that government should not promote or "establish" religion.

"Here is the government relying on a religious institution to perform what's traditionally been a government service . . . and provide welfare services," said University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "There's a strong argument that it's unconstitutional."

University of Missouri law professor Carl Esbeck, who con-ceived the charitable choice idea, said the U.S. Supreme Court of late has become more accommodating to the role of religion in American life.

There have long been church-government partnerships to provide child care, education, medical treatment and other services, Esbeck said: "The government has funded private social services ever since there's been government welfare."

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.

Recipients can refuse services from a religious group and find a different provider, but Davis said the law does not actually require churches to notify welfare clients of that right. And nothing prevents preaching to welfare recipients who may have come in solely to get assistance.

"You can't tell a church, `You can't proselytize,' " Davis said. "That would be a denial of free exercise."