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A federal grant program that had been earmarked exclusively for religious groups will now be open to secular organizations, ending a controversy brought to public attention by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Last week, Americans United learned of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) program that allocated $4 million in grant funds for "faith-based" institutions for substance abuse and HIV prevention.

AU wrote to the department, pointing out the unconstitutional nature of the program and urging that it be changed immediately. After initial public comments defending the arrangement, the agency reversed course 24 hours later, acknowledging the need to bring the grant program into compliance with the law.

"We're delighted that the HHS has seen the light," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "There was simply no defense for offering a faith-based 'set-aside' that would make tax dollars available to religious groups and no one else."

In March, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), which is part of HHS, announced a multi-million dollar funding opportunity to establish AIDS prevention programs in minority communities. On the application for funds, one program, worth $4 million, was limited to "faith-based organizations" and "youth-serving organizations collaborating with faith-based organizations."

In a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, AU warned that the agency was risking a lawsuit.

"The criteria used to select the grant recipients are not neutral and secular but instead favor religion," AU's letter said. "The aid is not available on a nondiscriminatory basis to both religious and secular beneficiaries, but it is only available to organizations that are religious themselves or are working with religious organizations."

The letter added, "While we would like to resolve this matter without having to resort to litigation, we will file suit promptly if you fail to comply with this request."

On May 16, the day AU's letter was sent, a spokesperson for SAMHSA indicated the agency saw no difficulties with excluding secular groups from the application process, telling a reporter, "We're very aware of what's constitutional and what's not constitutional."

The next day, SAMHSA officials changed their minds. The grant program will now be open to applications from all groups.

"Considering this was our first legal showdown with the Bush administration over the faith-based issue, I'm very pleased with the result," Lynn concluded. "We are optimistic that all of our fights on this issue will be as successful."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.