WASHINGTON (AP) – Churches and other religious groups are allowed to receive federal money to provide preschool to poor children. Now, the House says, they should be allowed to hire based on religion.

In a broad update of the Head Start program, the House voted Thursday to let preschool providers consider a person’s faith when hiring workers – and still be eligible for federal grants. The Republican-led House said the move protects the rights of religious groups, but Democrats blasted it as discriminatory.

The debate over religion overshadowed the main parts of the bill, which had drawn bipartisan support.

Overall, the House bill would insert more competition into Head Start grants, require greater disclosure of how money is spent, and try to improve collaboration among educators in different grades.

Only 23 Democrats supported the House bill, which was approved 231-184. The vote on the amendment allowing the religion-based hiring was even tighter. It passed 220-196, with support from 10 Democrats.

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee, said the bill ensures that faith-based centers “aren’t forced to choose between relinquishing their identities or being shut out of the program altogether.”

Launched in the 1960s, the nearly $7 billion Head Start program provides comprehensive education to more than 900,000 poor children. Though credited for getting kids ready for school, Head Start has drawn scrutiny as cases of financial waste and questions about academic quality have surfaced nationwide.

Yet most of the debate Thursday was not about oversight. It was about religion and civil rights.

The Republican plan would, for example, allow a Catholic church that provides Head Start services to employ only Catholic child-care workers, and to reject equally qualified workers of other religions.

“This is about our children, and denying them exemplary services just because the organization happens to be a religious one is just cruel,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.

Democrats and Republicans offered different interpretations of whether the Constitution, federal law and court rulings protected – or prevented – federally aided centers from hiring based on religion.

Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, said the religion provision marred an otherwise strong bill. “That is wrong,” Miller said. “It is a violation of our civil rights laws and it has sunk the chances of making this important bill a truly bipartisan bill.”

“Congress should not be in the business of supporting state-sponsored discrimination,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.

The House bill, which had sailed through the Education Committee without controversy, would reauthorize the Head Start program through 2011. A similar measure in the Senate is pending.

The Senate bill does not include the religion-based hiring provision, although the language is likely to be offered as an amendment when the bill comes to a vote, as it was in the House.

Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Education Committee, intends to work with senators on the religion issue in hopes of reaching a deal that will get the underlying bill approved, his spokesman said.

On academics, the House bill prods Head Start centers to work with school districts and teach to state academic standards or risk losing their federal money. That strategy is quite different from the last time.

By a single vote in 2003, the House passed a bill that would have let up to eight states apply for control over Head Start, drawing opposition from every Democrat. That experimental shift in power died when Congress didn’t pass a Head Start law that year, and the new bill does not include the provision.

The bill would temporarily halt the federal test given to hundreds of thousands of 4-year-old and 5-year-old children in Head Start until a National Academy of Sciences review is completed. The Government Accountability Office found this year that the test, called the National Reporting System, is flawed.

On the Net:

Information on the bill, H.R. 2123, can be found at Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov/

AP-ES-09-23-05 0419EDT

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