Questions Loom for President's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
On Feb. 5, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to help address the nation's social problems by strengthening the capacity of faith-based and community organizations. The executive order amends a Bush-era order that created the former Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Despite campaign promises, the Obama order does not reverse the Bush policy that allowed federal agencies to award contracts to faith-based organizations that discriminate in their hiring processes based upon religious affiliation, marital status, or sexual orientation.
The Obama order expands the faith-based program by calling for an increase in federal funding of social service programs run by religious institutions and by establishing a federal advisory board composed of 25 diverse religious and secular leaders to consult on how funding will be distributed and to help shape the administration's policies on issues such as abortion, AIDS, and social welfare.
Before Obama signed the order, he spoke at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where he outlined the program and referenced the important role community groups play in alleviating social ills. "The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups," said Obama. "It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state. This work is important, because whether it's a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups providing job-training to those who need work, few are closer to what's happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations. People trust them. Communities rely on them."
According to The Washington Post, the office will expand its agenda and "will be more involved in policy planning than it was during the Bush years." The top priorities for the office will be reducing poverty and making community groups a part of the economic recovery, interfaith relations with leaders around the world, strengthening the role of fathers in society, and addressing teenage pregnancy and reducing the need for abortion.
The Obama order references the importance of supporting community groups while maintaining the separation of church and state. The order states, "It is critical that the Federal Government strengthen the ability of such organizations and other nonprofit providers in our neighborhoods to deliver services effectively in partnership with Federal, State, and local governments and with other private organizations, while preserving our fundamental constitutional commitments guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws and the free exercise of religion and forbidding the establishment of religion."
A separate 2002 Bush order had been criticized for not instilling safeguards to assure that federally funded services are appropriately coordinated, provided by qualified individuals, and provided without requirements for religious observance. This order also claimed that the constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech ensured that groups may receive federal taxpayer money "without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression or religious character." This assertion was intended to grant the right to faith-based institutions to use federally funded programs to proselytize for their religion. Perhaps the greatest controversy was that the Bush order allowed discriminatory practices in employment and in access to services.
In July 2008, during a speech in Zanesville, OH, candidate Obama said that he planned to prohibit religious hiring discrimination for federally funded positions, as well as religious proselytizing. "If you get a federal grant,” Obama said, “you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them or against the people you hire on the basis of their religion." This opposition was reiterated in a fact sheet issued by the campaign on plans to work with faith-based organizations. "Religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs."
Instead of completely withdrawing Bush's order, Obama outlines that the director of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships should seek guidance from the Department of Justice on specific legal issues. The order says that when legal or constitutional issues arise regarding "existing or prospective programs and practices," the executive director is to seek the opinion of the White House counsel and the attorney general. According to news reports, "the hiring rules would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis when there are complaints and that the Justice Department will provide legal assistance." A number of groups are saying the order does not go far enough in rescinding the Bush hiring policies and are now calling on Obama to act on this campaign promise.
The Obama order also creates the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners Magazine and a member of the council, said the council and the new faith-based office "offers the chance to move beyond necessary programs to fund exemplary faith-based organizations [. . .] to a broader and deeper vision of real 'partnership' between the faith community and sound social policies."
Members of the advisory council will be appointed to one-year terms, which may be extended. The role of the council will be "to identify best practices and successful modes of delivering social services; evaluate the need for improvements in the implementation and coordination of public policies relating to faith-based and other neighborhood organizations; and make recommendations to the President."
The advisory council consists of both those who have publicly supported and opposed the hiring issue. One member of the new advisory council is Richard Stearns, president of World Vision. Recently, new reports highlighted a 2007 Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) legal opinion allowing a $1.5 million grant to World Vision, a Christian aid group that makes religious belief a condition of employment. Since the 2002 Bush order could not replace existing statutes, the OLC opinion interprets the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a way for agencies to exempt grantees from statutes such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbid discriminatory hiring.
Existing religious hiring rights is a controversial issue; while some groups argue that hiring based on religion is necessary for their work and identity, others assert that it is a violation of Americans' civil rights. Groups charged that as written, the Obama order continues to allow discrimination in hiring. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) issued a press release citing executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn. Lynn said, "It should be obvious that taxpayer-funded religious bias offends our civil rights laws, our Constitution and our shared sense of values."
In July 2008, OMB Watch joined the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), a group of religious, civil rights, and civil liberties groups, in letters to the presidential candidates advocating corrective action to "restore religious liberty and civil rights as critical components of future administrative policy."
AU has put out an action alert calling on the public to contact the White House asking the president to put forth an executive order that directly bars employment bias in all publicly funded programs. In the letter to Obama, AU asserts, "When you signed an executive order creating the Council, you failed to put an immediate end to such discrimination and clearly ban proselytization. Although you have offered criticism of some of the constitutional pitfalls of Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, I am saddened to note that every rule and regulation of his Initiative remains intact today."
While Obama's executive order may be controversial because of the hiring issue, some elements are heartening to many. For example, the change of the office's title to include "partnership," the specific priorities put forth for the office, and the creation of a new advisory council all offer the chance for constructive outcomes. Obama said the office will "be a resource for nonprofits and community organizations, both secular and faith based, looking for ways to make a bigger impact in their communities, learn their obligations under the law, cut through red tape, and make the most of what the federal government has to offer."