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Obama would overhaul Bush's faith-based initiatives

But in supporting religious charities, he runs the risk of alienating some Democrats.

By Jane Lampman / July 2, 2008

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama speaks to the media at Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, Ohio, July 1, 2008.

Matt Sullivan/Reuters

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In a campaign already strongly emphasizing faith, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama announced his intent to make federal funding of religiously based organizations a key part of his push to help the needy.

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His plan would overhaul and expand the controversial faith-based initiative that was an early cornerstone of President Bush's domestic program, which Senator Obama said had "never fulfilled its promise."

Obama's proposals, announced Tuesday, are likely to appeal particularly to African- Americans, who already lean Democratic, and to Evangelicals of various political stripes who are increasingly concerned about issues of poverty. He has stepped up his religious outreach in recent weeks, including seeking inroads into the Republicans' Evangelical base. But his proposals also run the risk of alienating Democrats opposed to funding religious groups for any purpose.

Obama said America's problems were too big to solve through government alone. "I believe that change comes not from the top down but from the bottom up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques," he said, during a visit to Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, Ohio.

The senator was careful to highlight key areas of difference between that initiative and his own proposal for a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"Make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea," Obama said.

He emphasized that those receiving funds could not proselytize the people they help nor could they discriminate in hiring practices on the basis of religion. Faith-based groups could only use federal dollars for secular programs. And he committed to ensure that taxpayer dollars would only go to "programs that actually work."

These "guiding principles" were aimed at defusing criticisms surely to come from many in the Democratic camp as well as watchdog groups, which have won some court cases where faith-based groups were found using dollars for religious purposes.

"Proselytizing and discrimination in hiring have been two of the big problems with the president's program," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "The devil is in the details on whether the Obama plan would fully correct those, but he's moving in the right direction.

"The unfortunate thing is that the idea of giving religious bodies government funding is easily a formula for misuse and politicizing. We've seen that in the last seven years," Mr. Lynn adds.

Religious groups hiring only those of their faith to operate federally funded programs remains a key issue, which Obama's campaign needs to clarify further, says Marc Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress.