XIII. President Obama’s Assault on Church-State Separation

Barack Obama made a speech on July 1, 2008 at a campaign rally in Zanesville, Ohio, in which he said that faith-based recipients of government aid can’t proselytize the people they help and they can’t discriminate against them, or against the people they hire, on the basis of their religion.

The importance that President Obama assigned to George W. Bush’s faith-based policy was that he created his own faith-based office within about two weeks of taking office. On February 5, 2009, Obama announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives. In that announcement, Obama asserted that the expression of faith is a force stronger than government, even though in that same announcement he expressed his strong support of separation of church and state. A faith-based office would seem, on the surface, to weaken that separation.

Besides creating the faith-based office, Obama created an advisory council of 25 members, who would serve one-year terms.

President Obama’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives office has come under fire for proselytizing,  not taking action to prevent discriminatory hiring and, in general, creating an exact replica of Bush’s faith-based office. Obama has been accused of proselytizing himself by using the office to push a climate change agenda. The charge would represent a departure for Obama, since environmentalists have accused him fro not doing anywhere enough on climate change.

The second attack on Obama came after he observed at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2010 that his administration had “turned the faith-based initiative around.” His statement triggered forceful criticism. Sarah Posner, of Citizens Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), wrote, as follows, in Religion Dispatches:

– “Obama had made three pledges: to end the exemption allowing         federal grantees to discriminate in hiring based on religion; to require houses of worship receiving federal funds to form separate non-profits so that federal funds would not be directed to sectarian organizations; and to put in place oversight and monitoring of proselytizing by federal grantees.

– “As president, Obama decided instead to address instances of employment discrimination on a ‘case-by-case basis’ and to only recommend but not require separate non-profits. The administration has not unveiled any plans to beef up oversight of proselytizing by grantees.”

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that “in all significant ways, the Obama faith-based initiative right now is the same as the Bush faith-based initiative.”

President Obama also drew fire from Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, who accused him of allowing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual Americans.

President Obama’s position is that anti-discrimination rules apply only to the narrow program the government is funding and not to the other missions being carried jout by a grantee. The Obama administration has not unveiled any plans to beef up oversight of proselytizing by grantees.

Among the things Americans United and CARD are calling for:

– Revoke a June 2007 legal memo issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that asserts that a 1993 religious freedom law gives religious groups the right to take tax funds and still discriminate on religious grounds in hiring. This interpretation, the joint letter asserts, is “erroneous and threatens core civil rights and religious freedom protections.”

– Issue policies making it clear that social-services providers must give proper notice to beneficiaries of their religious liberty rights and access to alternative secular providers.

– Require that houses of worship and other religious institutions that infuse religion into every program create separate corporations for the purpose of providing government-funded social services.

The position of the faith-based groups is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows them to restrict hiring to those who share their faith.

What Should Obama Do or Have Done?

Although the recommended changes called for by Americans United and CARD would remove a legal basis for discrimination and would create separation between a religious institution’s own mission programs and government-funded social programs, these kinds of changes would be difficult to monitor. The faith-based office also adds another layer of government and adds another expense item in the budget.  Monitoring compliance would be another administrative headache.

The best course of action is to eliminate the faith-based office, as that is the decision most in concurrence with separation of church and state.

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