PRESIDENT BUSH sat on a stage in Philadelphia yesterday behind a desk looking every bit as though he were signing a bill finally giving life to his faith-based initiative, the cornerstone of his "compassionate conservative" agenda. Only this wasn't a bill; it was a series of executive orders. This had the advantage of avoiding all the hassle and bother of legislative debate and opposition.

But the faith-based initiative is not National Secretaries' Day. It stalled in both the House and Senate last year after a raw and substantive debate over the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Last summer there was an uproar after the leak of a Salvation Army internal report saying the group had received a commitment from the White House to protect religious charities from state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Salvation Army is a Christian group that does not recognize gay couples in its employment benefits. In his executive order yesterday, Mr. Bush did not explicitly promise religious organizations that receive federal grants an exemption from such state laws. But he did make clear that religious organizations that receive federal contracts may discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

There is a thicket of difficult questions to be hashed out here, pitting the principle of religious freedom against that of anti-discrimination. Both are key values, and neither is an absolute. A religious charity should not have to change its essential character in order to receive federal support for worthy activities. In his Philadelphia speech, Mr. Bush listed examples of religious groups denied federal funding merely because of skittishness on the part of federal bureaucrats afraid of a lawsuit -- lazy "habits" of discrimination, as Mr. Bush said. A report by his Office of Faith-Based Initiatives last year catalogued numerous persuasive examples.

But neither do most Americans believe that religious groups receiving federal funds should be free to discriminate indiscriminately. The point is not that some middle ground is unattainable; this country has a long history of wrestling with this question. A provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act already exempts religious organizations from some hiring strictures. Religious universities and hospitals have long received federal funds without much controversy. It's really all in the details.

The point, though, is that those details contain the crux of a fundamental debate. They haven't been worked out yet where they should be, through the political process. No amount of fiat or fanfare behind a desk can change that.