WASHINGTON -- President Bush, trying to revive a stalled initiative, said yesterday the doctrine of separation of church and state should not prevent religious groups from competing for government money to help the needy.
''I'm telling America, we need to not discriminate against faith-based programs," Bush told a White House conference of community leaders. ''We need to welcome them so our society is more wholesome, more welcoming, and more hopeful for every single citizen."
Opponents of Bush's initiative, launched in the early days of his administration, worry that the government could wind up paying for religion. They also object to allowing taxpayer-funded groups to hire and fire based on religious persuasion. But the proposal is popular with religious groups, a key political constituency, and Bush is pushing it as an election-year initiative.
''I fully understand it's important to maintain the separation of church and state," Bush said. ''We don't want the state to become the church nor do we want the church to become the state. We're in common agreement there."
''But I do believe that groups should be allowed to access social service grants so long as they don't proselytize or exclude somebody simply because they don't share a certain faith," he said. ''In other words, there's a way to accomplish the separation of church and state and at the same time accomplish the social objective of having America become a hopeful place and loving place," Bush said to loud applause and shouts of ''Amen."
Democrats renewed their opposition.
''Bush's support for faith-based initiatives rings hollow," said Jano Cabrera, a Democratic National Committee spokesman. ''With his right hand, Bush is providing minimal support to faith-based groups but with his left, he's planning to cut the social safety net wholecloth if he wins in November."
Critics cite other objections, not just the question of constitutional legitimacy. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington religious liberty group, said other social programs are receiving less funding as a result of the increase in spending for faith-based programs.
''What the White House never tells you are the stories of all the people whose benefits and programs have been cut off so that money can be diverted to these religious operations," Lynn said. ''This is still much more smoke and mirrors than it is a substantive program to aid the poor."
Thwarted by Congress, the president has sidestepped lawmakers with executive orders and regulations to give religious organizations equal footing in competing for federal contracts. He is still fighting for legislation that would give religious groups access to federal funds as long as their services are available to anyone.
The goal is to make sure that grass-roots leaders can compete on an equal footing for federal dollars, receive greater private support, and face fewer bureaucratic barriers, the White House says.