Faith-Based Initiatives Survive Bush

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

The importance that President Obama attached to George W. Bush’s faith-based policy was evidenced when he created his own faith-based office within two weeks of taking office. On Fegruary 5, 2009, Obama announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives. In that announcement, Obama asserted that the expansion 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 that office, Obama created an advisory council of 25 members, who would serve one-year terms.

President Obama’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives office came under fire on two grounds. The first is that he has been accused of proselytizing by using the office to push a climate change agenda. This charge would represent a departure for Obama, since environmentalists have assailed him for not doing near enough on climate change.

The second attack on Omama 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 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 lesbians, gays, bisexual and transsexual Americans.

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.

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

Among the things American United and CARD are calling for are:

– Revoke a June 2007 legal memo issued by the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel that asserts that a 1993 religious freedom law gives the religious groups the right to take the 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 protection.”

– 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.

                     What, Then, Should Be 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 governmment-funded social services, these kinds of changes would be difficult to monitor. The faith-based office adds another layer of government and adds another expense item for the budget. 

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

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