Obama’s Faith-Based Plan

In comments at the National Prayer Breakfast, a White House announcement, and an executive order, President Obama unveiled yesterday many details of his revised version of the federal faith-based initiative.

Background. The federal initiative was launched during the Clinton administration with the incorporation of the Charitable Choice provision into several major federal programs (welfare, Community Services Block Grants, and federal drug treatment) and the creation of a Center for Interfaith and Community Partnerships at HUD.


President George W. Bush massively expanded the initiative in a campaign to make the federal government more of a support than a substitute for faith-based and secular grassroots organizations. His initiative particularly stressed safeguarding in federal law and practice the religious freedom of faith-based organizations. To carry out the work, he established a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 11 federal agencies and at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Expanded Mandate. In addition to the Bush initiative’s focus on improving how the federal government works with and supports secular and religious community-serving organizations, President Obama wants religious leaders to have a larger formal say in the design of federal policy and also to help encourage greater understanding between religions, domestically and globally.

Revised Structure. The White House faith-based office has been renamed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). Joshua DuBois will be its Executive Director. Its staff will be greatly expanded. The agency centers will be maintained in some form. Judging from press reports, special areas of emphasis will include fatherhood, adoption, and reducing abortions.

The biggest change is the creation of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which will advise the President, via the head of the OFBNP, on policy concerning faith-based and grassroots services. This Council can hold hearings and create taskforces to investigate and report. The Council will have up to 25 members. Fifteen of the members were named yesterday. They include:

Father Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA
Rev. Joel Hunter, a centrist evangelical pastor
Jim Wallis of Sojourners
Richard Stearns, President of World Vision
Dr. Frank Page, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention
Fred Davie, President of Public/Private Ventures
Rabbi David Saperstein, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Melissa Rogers, Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs

Revised Executive Order. President Obama’s executive order to create his faith-based initiative amends President Bush’s Executive Order 13199, which created the Bush White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The revisions stress holding grantees accountable for measurable results, the federal government’s responsibility to strengthen the management and service capacity of private groups, and the importance of staying within the constitutional guidelines: equal protection of the laws, free exercise of religion, and no establishment of religion (the Bush language stressed that programs must be “results oriented” and respect the “bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality”).

The Obama executive order adds this provision: “in order to ensure that Federal programs and practices involving grants or contracts to faith-based organizations are consistent with law, the Executive Director, acting through the Counsel to the President, may seek the opinion of the Attorney General on any constitutional and statutory questions involving existing or prospective programs and practices.” Of course, the Bush Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives itself consulted regularly with the Attorney General, the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice, and the White House Office of Legal Counsel.

Religious Staffing Freedom Unclear. It remains unclear what the final policy of the Obama administration will be about religious hiring by faith-based organizations that receive federal funds. In response to reporters’ demands for a clear statement about whether President Obama will carry though on a campaign commitment to forbid religious hiring in any social service program a faith-based organization operates with federal funds, Joshua DuBois stressed the legal review process and the need for “case-by-case” determinations (see reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal).

Given that no new policy has been announced, presumably the status quo remains, for now: faith-based organizations that receive federal funds are free to hire on a religious basis, unless the specific funding program (such as Head Start) bans the freedom, or unless the federal funds first pass through a state or local agency that forbids religious hiring. If the federal program bans religious staffing, the faith-based organization can appeal to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to set aside the ban, if being unable to select employees on a religious basis would substantially burden its religious exercise.

Both the religious staffing issue and the question whether a faith-based organization that receives federal funds can (separately) engage in evangelism are reportedly subject to legal review and case-by-case examination. This uncertainty about standards is in sharp contrast with the Bush approach, which sought to create certainty for faith-based organizations by clarifying the constitutional and statutory rules, promulgating detailed regulations, and issuing guidance to officials and to nonprofit groups.

Hopefully, the new White House office will issue clear guidance once its studies and legal reviews are completed. Faith-based organizations must know in advance whether their religious identity, faith-based practices (including religious hiring), and faith-shaped services (including voluntary, privately paid religious activities) will be protected if they agree to help the federal government respond to social need.

Stanley Carlson-Thies wrote the original Charitable Choice language and is Executive Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

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