Glass is becoming big business at First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church in the District's Shaw neighborhood.

And the Glass Packaging Institute, a bottling industry association that promotes recycling as an alternative to bottle deposit legislation, is hoping to make that business even bigger.

At First Rising Mount Zion and 12 other D.C. churches, a 15-month pilot recycling project is billed as a community service program that doubles as a fund-raiser for the church, returning $20 for each ton of glass collected and a total of $12,000 in scholarships for teen-aged church members.

Leaders of the movement to place a refundable nickel deposit on beverage containers to reduce litter say, however, that the city's churches and congregations are being bought off by the bottling industry in an effort to defeat the "bottle bill" voter initiative on November's ballot.

"From my viewpoint I see it as an effort by the bottling industry to co-opt churches, and particularly an effort aimed at the black community to make {the bottle bill} something of a racial issue," said Terence Lynch, director of the 24-church Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

Lynch's opinion is vigorously rejected by Ed Arnold, who represents both the Glass Packaging Institute and the anti-bottle bill Clean Capital City Committee. The glass recycling program -- nicknamed Operation Igloo because of the brightly colored, igloo-shaped recycling containers, which are placed on parking lots of participating churches -- was on the drawing boards before the bottle bill was placed on the ballot, Arnold said.

"I feel we've been done an injustice by the environmentalists," Arnold said. "There is more to this story than the bottle bill."

Arnold and others active in the anti-bottle bill movement argue that recycling is the best way to control litter in the city. A bottle bill, they say, would impose undue hardship on owners of small stores with limited storage space, as well as on elderly residents who would find it difficult to afford the nickel surcharge or return heavy bottles to stores.

"I didn't even know about the bottle bill when I got into it," said the Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington and pastor of First Rising Mount Zion. Gibson, a prominent member of the District's church community and an ally of Mayor Marion Barry, enlisted the other churches involved in the program and acts as the spokesman for the program.

Gibson added, however, that he now has serious reservations about the bottle bill initiative, which was placed on this fall's ballot by activists who collected 17,805 signatures of support. Similar measures have been adopted in nine states. A bottle bill proposal that received D.C. Council approval in 1974 was vetoed by the mayor and has since failed to gain support in the District Building.

More than 15,000 pounds of glass have been picked up at Gibson's church since the recycling program began three weeks ago. Gibson points to the recycling activity on his Sixth Street NW parking lot as another example of the church's community involvement, which includes summer computer processing classes for area youth and a food distribution program for the neighborhood's poor residents.

The scholarship program divides the churches into regions to compete for the most glass collected and trucked away by the D.C. Department of Public Works. Winning churches will be awarded $2,000 for scholarships and runners-up $1,000 or $500 each.

"Glass looks bad lying around on our lots," Gibson said. "This serves two good purposes. It helps take the glass away, and it is putting the concept of recycling waste to a test here in the Washington area."

Jonathan Puth, the director of the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign, agrees but said that greater incentive exists for people to return glass bottles for refundable deposits placed at the time of purchase than for simple recycling.

"They went to the churches and said, 'Here, we'll give you something for nothing,' " Puth said of the Operation Igloo effort. "This is classic industry anti-bottle bill work."

According to campaign finance reports filed this year, Arnold's Clean Capital City Committee, financed chiefly by bottlers and the Glass Packaging Institute, had raised about $200,000, compared with the $12,000 raised by Puth's pro-bottle bill committee. Efforts such as Operation Igloo are not considered to be part of the initiative campaign, Arnold said, and money spent on that program is not accounted for in campaign finance documents.

Puth, whose committee is scheduled to hold a $10-a-person fund-raiser at Eastern Market on Thursday, said that the recycling effort is "window dressing" and will not remove significant amounts of glass litter from city streets.

Arnold and Gibson deny that the recycling program is anything other than a trial run designed to demonstrate how well glass cleanup programs can work and, as Arnold said, "what people will do when given incentive by a leader in the community."

Lynch, however sees the industry-church alliance as "blatantly political" and the recycling effort as unrelated to the social justice mission of churches.

"I don't think ministers are going to get up in their pulpits and say to vote against this initiative," Lynch said. "But there are so many ministers in this town, if you want to find a minister to say something, you can."