Mr. President, Remember Church-State Separation!

President-elect George W. Bush plans to create a federal office in the White House to promote faith-based charity programs.

It's designed to eliminate regulations that ban religious groups from taking part in federal programs and to make it easier for church groups and charities to get their hands on taxpayer money. He also would expand federal tax breaks to boost charitable donations.

Hasn't Bush ever heard of the separation of church and state, a time-honored tenet rooted in the U.S. Constitution? Why would he try to chip away at the DMZ of church-state relations even before he knows his way around the federal government and has assumed his overwhelming duties? Surely he has enough on his plate during his learning curve.

For Bush, setting up a religious-related office in the White House and end-running the overall ban on funneling federal money to religious organizations may have several purposes. He may be trying to appease his supporters on the religious right. Obviously, he also is trying to reduce direct government involvement in safety-net programs for the needy. Those programs had their heyday when another Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, promoted a caring Great Society.

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions play an indispensable role in helping the disadvantaged. But I haven't heard any religious leaders panting for an official slot in the West Wing of the White House.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer says the president-elect views the planned federal Office of Faith-Based Action as the "next step" in welfare reform. Bush has said religious groups are better able to handle many social services than the government. Furthermore, in discussing the unusual idea, Fleischer told reporters: "Get used to it. This is how he is going to govern."

The president-elect said at a post-election news conference that he wants to work on "how the government can encourage, as opposed to discourage, faith-based programs (in) performing their commonplace miracles of renewal."

Fine, nothing wrong with encouraging good works. But why undermine one of the core principles of the founding fathers a value that has kept this nation basically free of rancorous, divisive religious strife that we have seen in so many other lands?

Americans are free to worship or not to worship. They are also free to give to charity. But they understand that religious institutions are freer because of that wall of separation, however porous it may be.

Bush can display his compassionate conservatism in many ways. He can preach giving, as his father, former President George Bush, did with his Thousand Points of Light program. He can promote voluntarism to support the disadvantaged, and he can promote religious tolerance from his bully pulpit. But he should not, after swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution, weaken its First Amendment and a key tradition that Americans have cherished throughout our history.

Churches, synagogues and mosques have all had their charitable outreach programs, thank you, without the help of the federal government. In fact, most of them do not want a close relationship, fearing regulation of their ministries.

Promoting religious solutions to social problems is hardly the designated duty of the president, who has to worry about war and peace. Nothing bars Bush from pursuing his religious mission privately, but he should not put it in his official bailiwick.

With some 90 percent of blacks voting against him in the presidential election, Bush met with black preachers in late December. He was trying to reach out to them in keeping with his campaign pledge to be a "uniter, not a divider."

In trying to redeem what he calls his misspent youth, Bush says he has become a born-again Christian. He once reportedly argued with his mother, Barbara Bush, saying that non-Christians could not go to heaven. She disagreed with him. They settled the dispute by calling evangelist Billy Graham, who recommended that they steer clear of touchy theological questions in public.

Bush is an avid reader of the Bible. In that respect, he is like many presidents who found their religion a great comfort under their awesome burden. But for most, religion was a private affair, other than their Sunday churchgoing.

President Richard Nixon, however, hosted worship services on Sundays in the White House and invited Cabinet members and other government dignitaries to attend. Ministers of different churches were invited to conduct the services in the East Room.

President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn, both Baptists, taught Bible classes and Sunday school at times even after they moved into the White House. Presidents like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were not afraid to say publicly that they got down on their knees to pray at night. No president has been more at home in black churches than President Clinton or more eloquent when it came to delivering sermons.

In World War II, there was a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. That certainly has a resonance in the White House. And hats off to all the religious groups that seek to improve the quality of life of the needy. But the government also has a humanitarian mission to make sure that its citizens have a secular safety net. That way, no one will be left behind.

Helen Thomas is a columnist for The Hearst Newspapers and former White House correspondent for UPI. Reprinted with permission.