President Bush, trying to revive a stalled faith-based initiative (search), said Tuesday the doctrine of separation-of-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 government would 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 of Bush's, and he 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 hollows," said Jano Cabrera, a Democratic National Committee (search) 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 problems, not just the question of constitutional legitimacy. Barry W. Lynne, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search), a Washington religious liberty watchdog group, said other social program 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," Lynne 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.

The White House is targeting for help organizations that serve at-risk youth, ex-offenders, the homeless and the hungry, substance abusers, welfare-to-work families, and those with HIV or AIDS.

Bush recounted success stories of people whose lives he said had been changed by such faith- based groups. He said the federal government should not be "fearful" of these organizations, but should instead thank them for their accomplishments.

At a regional conference on the subject in March, Bush said the efforts of religious and community organizations "will change our nation for the better."

The Bush administration is offering participants in the national conference networking opportunities with Cabinet agency officials and is urging those who attend to stay in town an extra day and spread the word to lawmakers "about the good work you are doing in your community," the White House says on its Internet site.

The White House calls the president's faith-based initiative "a fresh start and bold new approach to government's role in helping those in need."

Two weeks ago, the president took that message to Wisconsin, a state he lost by less than 6,000 votes four years ago and where he is running a tight race against Democratic rival John Kerry.