Faith-Based Initiative 2.0: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Leaders Ate Disappointed by Obama 'Faith-Based' Rollout
Conn, Joseph L., Church & State
Veteran Washington journalist Helen Thomas had a question for White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
"Does the president believe in separation of church and state?" she asked, during the Feb. 5 media briefing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Replied Gibbs, "He does."
Countered Thomas, "Then why does he keep this religious office open in the White House?"
That's a question that a lot of Americans are asking.
Earlier that day, President Barack Obama named a new executive director for his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and signed an executive order creating a 25-member advisory council of religious and community leaders.
Obama chose Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old campaign worker and Pentecostal preacher, to lead the project. He also announced 15 members of the council, reflecting a wide range of religious and political views, including conservative evangelicals.
At the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton that Thursday morning, Obama cast his faith-based programas part of a wider effort to solve social and economic problems and lower tensions between religions worldwide.
The president said all traditions--from Christians, Jews and Muslims to Buddhists, Hindus and Humanists--teach people to love one another and treat others with respect. He said his faith-based program will "bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times."
Obama promised to respect constitutional mandates.
"The goal of this office," he said, "will not be to favor one religious group over another--or even religious groups over secular groups. 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."
But civil liberties advocates said George W. Bush's faith-based venture blurred that line badly and Obama so far has failed to restore much-needed legal and constitutional clarity. While the president's prayer-breakfast speech was inclusive, his executive order and other actions that day did not correct the civil rights and civil liberties abuses of the Bush administration.
Obama left completely untouched five Bush executive orders and numerous agency regulations and rulings that allow publicly funded religious groups to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and permit public funds to pay for construction and renovation of buildings used for worship.
That means billions of tax dollars in the federal pipeline are being allocated under the controversial Bush-era rules.
"I am very disappointed that President Obama's faith-based program is being rolled out without barring evangelism and religious discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It should be obvious that taxpayer-funded religious bias offends our civil rights laws, our Constitution and our shared sense of values.
"I would rather there be no 'faith-based' office," Lynn continued. "But if it exists, it must comply with long-established protections guaranteeing civil rights and civil liberties."
Obama promised as much in a speech last summer in Zanesville, Ohio. He said he supported the concept of partnerships between government and faith-based organizations, but indicated that he would take a different approach from the Bush administration.
"[I]f you get a federal grant," insisted then-candidate Obama, "you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them--or against people you hire--on the basis of their religion."
AU's Lynn noted that during the presidential campaign, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (chaired by Americans United) urged Obama and U.S. Sen. John McCain to take action to repair the damage done by the Bush administration. Letters to the candidates were signed by 43 groups, ranging from the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Council of Women's Organizations to the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.
These progressive religious, civil liberties and other advocacy groups were undoubtedly disappointed with Obama's response, but many evangelical Christian organizations were delighted. They saw it as the outcome of a successful lobbying campaign.
After Obama's Ohio faith-based pronouncement, conservative religious leaders began pressing him to back off from his commitment on hiring.
According to The Nero York Times, Obama aide DuBois said, "The president is still very much committed to clear constitutionality and legality in the program. He's committed to nondiscrimination."
But DuBois, who headed up religious outreach for the Obama campaign, also told the newspaper that after the Zanesville speech, "we have realized there's a tremendous lack of clarity in this area, so we'll review on a case by case basis."
The Rev. Frank Page, former president of the fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist Convention, told the Los Angeles Times, he is pleased by the apparent Obama retreat on employment discrimination.
"I'm very excited about this," exulted Page. "I know he was struggling with this particular issue. But this will allow religions groups to be true to themselves."
Page, whose denominational news service relentlessly attacked Obama during the presidential campaign, was one of 15 people named to the White House advisory council Feb. 5.
Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a Washington, D.C.-based evangelical group (and another advisory council appointee), told the Los Angeles newspaper that religious leaders were informed that decisions about hiring bias are being postponed. Wallis indicated "there would not be significant changes in the near term. This would be done slowly over time with partners at the table."
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he believes Obama will not override the Bush-era rules allowing publicly funded faith groups to discriminate in employment.
"I believe it's not practical," he told the Associated Press, "and it's not going to happen--and the president knows the backlash from the faith community would be egregious. To push the envelope on that, to say, for example, 'you're going to have to hire gays and lesbians'.... That would be unprecedented."
Civil rights advocates are pressing the White House to change course.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told CNN that the Bush policies "are not consistent with the values espoused by President Obama and his administration. We are hopeful that the new administration will take the necessary steps to address this critical issue of fairness expeditiously."
Feminist activist Martha Burk complained that Obama is moving ahead with his faith-based council but has refused so far to reestablish a White House office on women's issues that was shut down by Bush.
"To accord this advisory panel so much power," Burk wrote in an essay for Huffington Post, "while relegating women to the margins, speaks volumes.... Keeping this act going--even if it is broadened to include 'community members'--is not the change women voted for."
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) was also upset, telling the Los Angeles Times he thinks the president is wavering on a commitment.
"Based on what he said, we thought the issue had been resolved," Scott told the Times. "You'll have to ask them why they think it's all right to discriminate."
The Virginia Democrat, an early and important backer of Obama's presidential campaign, said administration officials are "either offended by the idea of discrimination, or they're not."
Scott, an African American, contends that the dispute has implications for racial discrimination as well as religious bias.
Noting that "most churches are either 100 percent white or 100 percent black," he asserted, "If you allow religious discrimination, then racial discrimination is essentially unenforceable."
Scott told The Virginian-Pilot, a Norfolk-area daily, that the issue is simple.
"We have to expose it for what it is ...," he said. "I don't think most people expect that you can apply for a job paid for by the federal government and be told, 'Oh, no, we don't hire people of your religion.'"
The dispute over the faith-based program is rapidly spiraling into a test of evangelical Christian influence with the Obama administration. While leaders of the hard-line Religious Right are not expected to wield much clout, so-called "moderate" evangelicals are practically giddy at the prospect of White House entree.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of central Florida's Northland Church, told the Christian Broadcasting Network, "This is a president who wants to engage and include conservative evangelicals."
Hunter, a mega-church preacher who was named to the Obama advisory council Feb. 5, has rocketed to national prominence in the past year. In 2006, he briefly accepted the job as president of the Christian Coalition, the once-influential Pat Robertson-founded Religious Right group, but he never started work. Hunter reportedly clashed with Coalition President Roberta Combs over his desire to broaden the group's anti-gay, antiabortion agenda to include the environment and poverty.
Wallis, a long-time acquaintance of Obama, told Politico, "The conventional wisdom suggests that, since Bush used much rhetoric about his commitment to working closely with religious leaders and communities, that the new Democrat coming to the White House might seek to diminish the role of religion in the administration.
"But I believe the opposite may turn out to be true," he continued. "There will be a new paradigm of religious influence under the Obama administration."
(This is Wallis' second shot at White House power. He celebrated George W. Bush's alleged "compassionate conservatism" after the Republican's election in 2000 and was gaining some political access in administration circles. But the White House door slammed shut when Wallis opposed Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
Southern Baptist leader Page hints that he expects to get his way in the Obama camp or he'll walk.
"I think that anyone who knows me knows that I'll be true to a relatively conservative, biblically based viewpoint," he told the Associated Baptist Press. "I let them know that, and if at some time that my voice is nothing more than just a token conservative voice, I'll resign."
Ironically, evangelicals are angling for access and influence despite a dismal Obama showing among evangelicals in November. According to exit polls, 74 percent of white evangelicals voted for McCain while only 24 percent voted for the Democratic candidate.
Public opinion surveys also demonstrate that Americans overwhelmingly oppose job bias and proselytism in publicly funded faith-based programs. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center poll, 67 percent of Americans favor allowing faith-based groups to apply for government funding, but 61 percent say groups that encourage religious conversion should not be eligible. Seventy-three percent say organizations that hire only people who share their religious beliefs should not receive government funds.
Civil rights and civil liberties activists and their allies in the progressive religious community plan to wage an all-out campaign to ask Obama to keep his promise to mandate legal and constitutional safeguards during upcoming months.
Members of the president's own administration may be of some help. Obama's executive order authorizes DuBois to consult with the White House Counsel's office and Attorney General Eric Holder "on any constitutional and statutory questions." Some church-state activists hope Holder and other attorneys at the Department of Justice will use their influence to curtail religious bias in government programs.
In addition, the advisory council currently includes a few members who actively support church-state separation, and activists are hoping that the next 10 appointees will increase that number. (See list on page 6.)
The White House faith-based office and its affiliated council have an extraordinarily broad mandate, and no one seems to know how much time will be spent on the faith-based funding issue.
Although the Obama executive order focused on social services, a White House press release said the program will also seek ways to address teenage pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion, encourage responsible fatherhood and work with the National Security Council to foster interfaith dialogue around the world in pursuit of global peace.
In the end, of course, it will be Obama who decides what the faith-based office does and what policies his administration implements on civil rights, civil liberties and the separation of religion and government.
Asked about the decision-making process on hiring bias Feb. 5, White House press officer Gibbs said, "I think you can be reasonably assured that the decision the White House makes will reflect the important principles that the president holds dear. It's safe to say that we don't make a lot of decisions around here that the president disagrees with."
Millions of Americans who care about the Constitution will be watching closely--and expressing their opinions to Obama and other elected officials--as that decision is made.
During the Aug. 16 presidential debate at the Rev. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, Obama was asked what the rules should be on hiring by publicly funded faith-based agencies.
"The devil," he replied, "is in the details."
It is indeed.
Obama's Faith-Based And Neighborhood Partnership Advisory Council
On Feb. 5, President Barack Obama announced 15 appointments to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Another 10 members will be appointed at a later date.
* Judith N. Vredenburgh, president and chief executive officer, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, Philadelphia, Pa.
* Rabbi David N. Saperstein, director and counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Washington, D.C.
* Dr. Frank S. Page, former president, Southern Baptist Convention, Taylors, S.C.
* The Rev. Larry J. Snyder, president, Catholic Charities USA, Alexandria, Va.
* The Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, Cleveland, Ohio
* Eboo S. Patel, founder and executive director, Interfaith Youth Corps, Chicago, Ill.
* Fred Davie, president, Public/Private Ventures, New York, N.Y.
* Dr. William J. Shaw, president, National Baptist Convention, USA, Philadelphia, Pa.
* Melissa Rogers, director, Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs, Winston-Salem, N.C.
* The Rev. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor, Northland Church, Lakeland, Fla.
* Dr. Arturo Chavez, president and CEO, Mexican American Cultural Center, San Antonio, Texas
* Jim Wallis, president and executive director, Sojourners, Washington, D.C.
* Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, presiding bishop, 13th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Knoxville, Tenn.
* Diane Baillargeon, president and CEO, Seedco, New York, N.Y.
* Richard Stearns, president, World Vision, Bellevue, Wash.
Tell President Obama What You Think ...
Take a moment and let President Barack Obama know what you think about his "faith-based" program.
The mailing address is: The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.
Or you can contact the president's office by phone. The comments line is 202-456-1111: the switchboard is 202-456-1414. (There's also a FAX number: 202-456-2461.)
It's easiest to e-mail. Here's the site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/ contact/…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Faith-Based Initiative 2.0: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Leaders Ate Disappointed by Obama 'Faith-Based' Rollout. Contributors: Conn, Joseph L. - Author. Magazine title: Church & State. Volume: 62. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 2009. Page number: 4+. © 1999 Americans United for Separation of Church and State. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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