President Obama's Religion Problem: Ignoring the Law at the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Article excerpt

After president Barack Obama gave a congratulatory shout-out to Joshua DuBois, director of his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP), at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Georgetown University religion scholar Jacques Berlinerblau wondered in the pages of the Washington Post "what exactly that office is doing--a never-ending source of confusion, and even awe, among reporters, policy analysts and professors in Washington, DC."

Berlinerblau compared the OFBNP to the Kremlin--apparently because of its ironclad hold on information about its activities, which are frequently reduced to cheery blog posts on the White House website extolling the virtues of faith-based provision of social services to people in need, but rarely addressing the thornier controversies that plague its mission.

Beneath its do-gooder exterior, the White House has taken few steps that have allayed the concerns of both advocates of church-state separation concerned about the OFBNP'S constitutionality and advocates of transparency and accountability. Meanwhile, as taxpayer dollars continue to be dispensed to faith-based organizations, it is still unclear how an executive order 0bama signed in November 2010, which set out new requirements intended to reduce some constitutional concerns, will actually be implemented.


Obama first launched the OFBNP in February 2009, shortly after taking office. At the time, he mostly kept policies from the Bush administration in place, including maintaining the arrangement of having a faith-based office in the White House, as well as offices in twelve federal agencies. Religious contractors and grantees would continue to receive federal funding under the "level playing field," a Bush-era term meaning that faith-based organizations would not be at a disadvantage relative to secular organizations in applying for federal funds. In one major change, Obama created an advisory council, to be made up of religious and community service leaders, to develop recommendations on how to improve the functioning of the office and increase partnerships between the government and faith-based groups in addressing societal problems.

Obama's first appointments to the council caused waves: conservatives complained about members it considered too liberal, and liberals complained about conservative members--a circumstance emblematic of how candidate 0bama's robust defense of constitutional principles had yielded to political considerations. The council members served one-year terms, and Obama appointed 10 new members in January 2011, leaving 15 slots still vacant. Unlike the first round, Obama did not publicly lay out an agenda that the advisory council would undertake, but DuBois, through a White House spokesperson, said he would once the full council is appointed.

Over the two-year life of Obama's OFBNP, however, the most controversial aspects of the Bush initiative have remained in place. Although Obama had promised in a July 2008 campaign speech that he would rid the OFBNP of two of its most pressing constitutional problems-allowing faith-based organizations receiving federal dollars to discriminate in hiring, and allowing federal money to be dispersed directly into houses of worship--he has done neither. Indeed, many of the evangelical leaders whose approval Obama sought during his run for the White House opposed those reforms, making their feelings known to campaign staff shortly after his stump speech.

In the two years since the OFBNP launch, church-state separation and civil liberties advocates, acting individually and through the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), have repeatedly pushed Obama to stop funding organizations with discriminatory hiring practices, as well as ending the practice known as direct funding, which permits taxpayer money to flow directly to houses of worship, rather than requiring them to establish a separate nonprofit entity. …