Faith-Based Initiative 2.0: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Leaders Ate Disappointed by Obama 'Faith-Based' Rollout

Article excerpt

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. …