American civil rights groups have expressed concern at the formation of a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships.

President George W Bush was heavily criticised for backing faith-based initiatives.

Just days after taking office in January 2001 he established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives by executive order.

Questions were raised about the separation of church and state as stipulated in the US Constitution.

President Obama said he would end the discriminatory hiring practices of government-funded religious groups that President Bush allowed but deferred changing the rules.

As a result billions of dollars of new federal spending in the economic stimulus package now before the Senate could be distributed under the existing rules that allow discrimination in hiring in federally-funded programmes.

The American Civil Liberties Union said President Obama, who took office last month, is “heading into uncharted and dangerous waters.”

Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said:

“What we are seeing today is significant – a president giving his favoured clergy a governmental stamp of approval.

“There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion – or religious leaders meddling in federal policy – through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president’s chosen religious leaders.”

Today’s announcement included the appointment of 25 members of a government advisory committee dominated by religious leaders to advise the President and the White House faith-based office on how to distribute federal dollars, and also advise on a range of other issues such as AIDS and women’s reproductive health care.

A gay man has been appointed to the council – Fred Davie, President of Public/Private Ventures, a group that works with low-income communities.

The governing council is dominated by religious leaders.

The ACLU said that while former President George W Bush gave prominence to his faith-based initiative and informally consulted with individual religious leaders, even he never formed a government advisory committee made up primarily of clergy.

“President Obama has put the cart before the horse,” said Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel.

“He is expanding the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative without putting the most important safeguards in place.

“The President has created a more powerful office with a greater ability to shovel federal taxpayer dollars to religious groups, but civil rights protections are being deferred for later study and decisions.

“With the President likely to soon have additional hundreds of billions of economic stimulus dollars at his disposal, he should have abolished the discriminatory rules of his predecessor before greasing the way for more federal funds going to religious groups.”

A 26-year-old Pentecostal minister who headed religious outreach for the Obama campaign has been appointed to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

“The big picture is that President Obama believes faith-based and smaller secular neighbourhood organisations can play a role in American renewal. They can work with the federal government to address big problems,” Joshua DuBois said in an interview with AP.

“We’re also going to make sure we have a keener eye toward the separation of church and state.”

President Obama said: “Joshua understands the issues at stake, knows the people involved, and will be able to bring everyone together – from both the secular and faith-based communities, from academia and politics – around our common goals.”

The White House said the Office of Faith Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships will work closely with the President’s Cabinet Secretaries and each of the eleven agency offices for faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships.

The exeutive order creating the new office states:

“Faith-based and other neighborhood organisations are vital to our nation’s ability to address the needs of low-income and other underserved persons and communities.

“The American people are key drivers of fundamental change in our country, and few institutions are closer to the people than our faith-based and other neighbourhood organisations.

“It is critical that the Federal Government strengthen the ability of such organisations and other non-profit providers in our neighbourhoods to deliver services effectively in partnership with Federal, State, and local governments and with other private organisations, while preserving our fundamental constitutional commitments guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws and the free exercise of religion and forbidding the establishment of religion.

“The Federal Government can preserve these fundamental commitments while empowering faith-based and neighbourhood organisations to deliver vital services in our communities, from providing mentors and tutors to school children to giving ex-offenders a second chance at work and a responsible life to ensuring that families are fed.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticised the new office.

It said President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative allowed religious groups that accept tax funding to engage in discriminatory hiring and celebrated faith-based groups that proselytise.

“I am very disappointed that President Obama’s faith-based programme is being rolled out without barring evangelism and religious discrimination in taxpayer-funded programmes,” said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

“It should be obvious that taxpayer-funded religious bias offends our civil rights laws, our Constitution and our shared sense of values.”

President Bush insisted that religious groups should have the right to accept public funding and still hire and fire on religious grounds and issued an executive order to that effect.