"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.