Obama Backtracks on Reform of Faith-Based Initiative

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 12, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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Washington — As a candidate, Barack Obama vowed to reform President Bush’s faith-based social services initiative — in particular Bush’s endorsement of the right of religious groups to discriminate in hiring members of their own groups in programs receiving federal funds under this program.

But as president, Obama backtracked on that promise February 6, when he issued an executive order reestablishing the White House office under a new name, but with similar guidelines.

Despite this, Jewish liberal organizations are giving the administration the benefit of the doubt, hoping that future rules will regulate federal funding for religious groups.

The new Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnership is expected to broaden the scope of government cooperation with religious groups and will draw on a newly established advisory council for setting the course for future funding of faith-based programs by the federal government. The sticking point of allowing groups receiving funds to use discriminatory hiring practices remained untouched.

Maintaining the status quo on faith-based guidelines has put the Obama administration in a sensitive position, with liberals still hoping for change to come and conservatives fearing that change is imminent. And although both sides agree that the battle over regulating the faith-based initiative is still to come, the liberals have a strong sense of disappointment. “He did it backwards,” claimed Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It would make much more sense to first put in place new rules and then strengthen the ability to provide groups with federal funds.”

The debate is gaining even more urgency now, since the administration’s stimulus package is expected to include large sums that will be provided through faith-based organizations.

For Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, the conflict over the operation of the Faith Based office is well known. During the Bush years, Saperstein was a leading critic of the initiative. Now he is an official member of Obama’s advisory council on this issue. According to Saperstein, this time is different. “It is clear that the president wants a robust partnership between the faith community and the administration and is willing to do it with much more sensitivity than his predecessor,” he said.

According to Saperstein, Obama is committed to “reducing to minimum” the use of taxpayer dollars for discriminatory hiring practices. Saperstein added that he finds the current practice “profoundly wrong” though he admits the issue is not a “main priority” of the advisory council of which he is a member.

Addressing the hiring discrimination issue was one of Obama’s campaign promises, but the executive order does not touch on the issue. Joshua DuBois, the newly-appointed director of the office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said Obama’s approach now is more nuanced and that discrimination issues will be dealt on a “case by case” basis, in consultation with the White House legal counsel and the Department of Justice.

Although this policy is seen as temporary and is being reviewed, some Jewish activists are dismayed by Obama’s refusal to take on the issue directly. “That’s not how you govern. Things need to be defined,” said an official with a major Jewish organization. He added that logistically, it is hard to see how a case-by-case review can be practical when dealing with hundreds and thousands of funding requests.

Proponents of the Bush approach, which broadly allowed religious groups to discriminate in hiring based on their beliefs, are equally concerned. Abba Cohen, director of Agudath Israel’s government relations office, warned that putting limits on hiring privileges would deter religious groups from entering any kind of partnership with the federal government. “From our experience,” Cohen said, “it is clear that the issue of hiring and some of the statements made in the past about limiting the rights of religious organizations on this issue, run the risk of alienating these organizations.”

The Faith based initiative was introduced by former president Bush shortly after taking office and expanded to a dozen federal agencies that provided grants and programs to faith groups for supplying social services. These services included treatment of substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and many other programs, including abstinence education. The Faith Based initiative was initially rejected by many Jewish groups, which cited their concern over weakening the Church and State separation and specific concerns relating to two major fields: proselytizing and discriminatory hiring by groups that receive federal funds. Jewish groups, according to a communal official, were not large recipients of grants provided through faith-based programs and were reluctant to apply for such funds during the Bush administration.

Obama’s decision to continue the Faith Based Initiative, considered to be one of the signature programs of the Bush administration, was widely viewed as an attempt to reach out to religious groups, even at the risk of angering the Democratic liberal base. Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union and a longtime supporter of the Faith Based initiative, said that no matter how Obama goes about regulating the program, the faith community has already received a positive signal from him. “I consider it quite a victory that a Democratic president not only continues the initiative but even expands it,” said Diament.

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