WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama said Tuesday that if he were elected president he would have his own version of President Bush's office of faith-based initiatives that would "help set our national agenda" and inject morality into policy debates about everything from AIDS to genocide.
Obama, who has criticized Bush's initiative as politicized and underfunded, would bar religious discrimination in hiring or services by the groups that received federal funds from his "Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships." He estimated the program would cost about $500 million per year. He said he would keep Bush's 11 faith-based offices and expand participation by smaller religious groups.
Obama, a former constitutional law professor, said he was committed to ensuring the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. He said federal grants would go only to secular programs run by religious groups, programs that don't proselytize religion.
The prospective Democratic nominee's remarks drew much attention, as Obama again is presenting a more centrist image to voters than he did in party primary contests.
"There are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square," Obama said. "But the fact is leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups." His remarks followed a visit to a community ministry in Zanesville, Ohio.
John DiIulio, a former director of Bush's faith-based program turned critic, praised Obama's proposal as "much that was best" of what Bush set out to do.
"Especially in urban America, all the empirical evidence continues to show that local faith-based organizations can make a measurable civic difference," DiIulio said in a statement released by Obama's campaign.
Two points for critics
Critics voiced two reservations: Some said that Obama's rule to ensure open hiring would discourage some organizations from participating; others said that any partnership between religion and government risked infringing on freedom of religion.
Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he was disappointed by Obama's stand because Bush's program had failed and should be shut down.
However, Lynn praised Obama's support for church-state separation in principle and his intention not to subsidize religious proselytizing.
Michael W. Macleod-Ball, the chief legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, reserved judgment but said, "We want to make sure that one religion is not favored over any other religion or over no religion. ... The more contacts you have between government and religion, the harder it is to meet that standard."
Jim Towey, a former director of Bush's faith office who is now the president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., said he was encouraged that Obama wanted to continue the initiative. But Towey said he expected that the hiring mandates would frustrate many organizations, including black churches and evangelicals.
"The reality is an Orthodox Jewish group ceases to be Orthodox if they have to hire atheists or Southern Baptists," Towey said. "What Senator Obama is saying is groups will have to secularize if they play ball with government and receive federal funding, and that flies in the face of what many small groups want. You're going to sap these groups of their effectiveness when you block them from hiring people who have the same heart and vision."
Obama has been under pressure to clarify his stance on religion's role in government since his former pastor's racially polarizing statements pushed Obama to leave his church of two decades.
Obama's remarks Tuesday could help him move beyond that controversy and perhaps increase appeal to religious voters.
Obama speech targets liberals
His stand is consistent with a faith agenda that Obama, 46, long has advocated. In his 2006 memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama wrote that he was drawn to join a black church in his 20s because of its tradition of social change and community ministry. Obama wrote of the danger he sees in fellow Democrats minimizing religion: "We need to take faith seriously not simply to block the religious right, but to engage all persons of faith in the larger project of American renewal."
Obama's prepared remarks Tuesday included goals dear to liberals, who often are wary of faith-based policy.
"If we are going to do something about the injustice of millions of children living in extreme poverty, we need interfaith coalitions like the Let Justice Roll campaign standing up for the powerless," Obama said. That interfaith group pushed for an increase in the federal minimum wage in Congress last year.
Bush last week trumpeted his faith-based initiative as part of his presidential legacy, saying that "more of our fellow citizens have discovered that the pursuit of happiness leads to the path of service," and that by his administration's count, 35 governors -- 19 Democrats and 16 Republicans -- had established faith-based programs.
Asked about Obama's plan, a White House spokeswoman, Emily Lawrimore, said simply that Bush hoped that the next administration would continue his faith-based initiative.