Back in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama warmly endorsed his predecessor’s faith-based initiative, allowing churches and other religious groups to compete for federal grants to deliver social services, but with one major caveat. President Bush allowed those faith groups to discriminate in hiring. Candidate Obama pledged to end the practice.
“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” he said in a Zanesville, Ohio, campaign speech.
Why won’t he repeat that in the White House? Nearly two years after taking office, the Obama administration has released a new directive that does include important safeguards to prevent an unconstitutional blending of religion and state, and promises greater transparency in this fraught but important initiative. Obama is right when he argues that government cannot address the nation’s social service challenges alone, and that sometimes institutions motivated by faith — and bravely present in neighborhoods others have long abandoned — are best able to deliver job training or substance-abuse counseling and the like.
But if those faith institutions accept federal money, they must be held accountable to federal rules. That was the law before President Bush, and it ought to be the practice now.