Obama’s Faith Initiative Wins Praise

By Anthony Weiss

Published July 02, 2008, issue of July 11, 2008.
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Senator Barack Obama’s proposal to expand federal funding for faith-based organizations is drawing a warm response from some Jewish communal groups who deal with church-state issues.

Obama’s speech on July 1 was building on the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. That program has drawn fire from a number of Jewish groups who criticized the program for allowing groups receiving government funds to discriminate in their hiring practices and for being too lax about letting religious groups proselytize while carrying out government programs.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, said that Obama’s position, as laid out in the speech, differed from Bush administration policy in two significant respects. One was that Obama pledged to ensure that groups using government funding do not proselytize — a count on which Stern said the Bush administration had been weak. Obama also asserted that religious groups could not discriminate in their hiring practices based on faith, a position that Stern said could lead to problems, particularly for positions that involve both secular and religious components.

Those problems were evident in a statement put out by Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Orthodox Union, which has been supportive of Bush’s program. Though Diament praised Obama for embracing the value of faith-based groups, he warned that Obama’s stance on hiring practices could prevent the O.U., and other religious groups, from participating at all.

“Insisting that faith-based groups waive their legally protected rights may well undermine Sen. Obama’s stated goal of having ‘all hands on deck’ as many faith-based groups, especially small ones, will opt out of government partnerships if this is the price of admission,” Diament said in a statement.

However, other groups praised Obama for striking the right balance.

“It’s important that when government funds are used for social services that those funds not be used to support religion-based hiring decisions” for the positions that receive funds, said Richard Foltin, director of legislative affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “On those general points, it seems [Obama’s] approach gets it right.”

At the root of the problem, said Stern, is the inherent difficulty raised by using religious groups to carry out government objectives.

“The question we should be asking is, Can you use religion at government expense to achieve social services?” said Stern. “Once you say you can, it’s hard to say you can treat religious institutions as if they were secular institutions. You’re inherently going into dicey territory and you ought to recognize that you’re going into dicey territory.”

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