Religious groups participating in federal job-training programs could hire employees based on their religious beliefs under a jobs bill that narrowly passed the House Wednesday.

The largely partisan 224-200 vote to extend and rewrite the 1998 Workforce Investment Act (search) came a day after President Bush, in a speech to religious leaders, chided Congress for not acting on his faith-based initiatives (search) and criticized a government culture he said was "unfriendly" to religious groups.

The White House, in a statement, expressed support for the job-training bill and for the provision on religious groups, saying that "receipt of federal funds should not be conditioned on a faith-based organization's giving up a part of its religious identity and mission."

Under current law, religious organizations that participate in federal job-training programs cannot discriminate in hiring or firing for taxpayer-funded jobs. The House bill would remove that prohibition, meaning that a church or synagogue could use a person's religious beliefs in determining employment for a federally funded job.

Supporters of the clause stressed that the 1964 Civil Rights Act (search) specifically protects the rights of religious organizations to take religion into account in their hiring practices.

"Considering the proven track record of faith-based providers in meeting the needs of our citizens, why would we want to deny them the opportunity to help in federal job-training efforts?" asked Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

But Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the provision would "shift the weight of the federal government from supporting the victim of discrimination to supporting some so-called right to discriminate with federal funds. That is a profound change in civil rights protection."

Scott offered an amendment to remove the language from the bill, but it was defeated, 239-186.

The legislation still must be considered by the Senate. The House and Senate passed similar job-training measures in 2003, but were unable to reconcile their differences.

The 1998 Job Training Improvement Act (search) consolidated some 60 programs with the objective of offering one-stop career centers. The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., seeks to further streamline the process, combining three adult job-training programs into one funding stream.

"The new bill that we are passing today will make it better, more efficient and help the people to really get the services they need," McKeon said.

It allows training for currently employed workers and incorporates a $250 million initiative sought by Bush in his fiscal 2005 budget proposal to strengthen the role of community colleges that provide job training programs.

It includes a pilot program to create personal reemployment accounts of up to $3,000 to help unemployed people with job training, transportation or day care.

Democrats, who overwhelmingly opposed the bill, said the $3,000 voucher idea was unproven and the bill would allow governors to divert funds from adult education and services for veterans and the disabled.