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Faith-Based Reform Veers Into Israeli Policy

A task force charged with improving the White House’s faith-based initiative program has waded into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raising eyebrows and concern among Jewish leaders.

Most of the attention around the controversial Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, begun by President George W. Bush and continued by President Obama, has centered on church-state separation issues. On October 13, a White House-appointed advisory council released its first set of recommendations for addressing those issues, urging both greater emphasis on transparency and stronger prohibitions against proselytizing by religious institutions receiving federal funds.

But in the final days of drafting the recommendations, a six-member task force on addressing interfaith issues inserted language about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into its recommendations for the faith-based program — which helps religious and community groups tap into federal funding for local projects such as drug rehabilitation, job training and soup kitchens.

The task force, one of several that were presenting recommendations, said the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships should “create a working group of multi-religious and community organizations focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to advise administration officials at the National Security Council and the State Department on a just resolution of the conflict.”

One task force member explained that in order to promote interfaith dialogue, especially with the Muslim world, it was important to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Jewish leaders across the spectrum expressed concern, saying it makes no sense to single out one foreign policy issue in a document devoted to improving a domestic program focused on local neighborhood projects.

“My initial reaction is, it’s clearly outside the scope of the office,” said Deborah Lauter, civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Orthodox Union, served on that advisory task force and said he does not think the Israeli-Palestinian language will make it into the final recommendations that will go to Obama in February 2010.

“These are still preliminary drafts,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jewish leaders expressed satisfaction with the draft recommendations on strengthening church-state separation in the faith-based initiatives program, even though one of the largest issues was off the table. “They’re starting to hear us, and we’re starting to feel better about it,” Lauter said.

The recommendations “reflect a lot of consensus that I am comfortable with,” Diament said.

During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to continue the Bush administration’s

faith-based program, but he promised one important change: Taxpayer money would no longer go to groups that discriminate in hiring. (Many religious groups do hire people based on their religious values, a practice protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

After the election, Obama reneged on the second half of that campaign promise. He appointed an advisory panel, divided into several task forces, to make reform recommendations, but he said the Justice Department and White House counsel would sort out the hiring discrimination issue.

“The fact that [the advisory council members] were instructed not to address it was a huge disappointment for us,” Lauter said.

More conservative organizations, however, hope to preserve the status quo. “To us, faith-based groups — both as a matter of religious liberty and as a foundation for their effectiveness and success — must be allowed to maintain their religious character and mission, and hiring policies are an integral part of that equation,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, director of the Washington office of the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America.

Since its inception, the faith-based office has distributed more than $2 billion in federal funding, the ADL estimates, and the federal stimulus package is now making even more money available to religious and community groups. The first draft of task force advice aims at more clearly separating church and state, including the following recommendations:

• Strengthen prohibitions against proselytizing to program beneficiaries, and ensure that people who get federally funded services through religious programs know their rights.

• Increase transparency by posting a list online of groups that receive money through the faith-based initiatives office.

• Strengthen the language in the Executive Order that created the faith-based program, to make it clear that sticking to constitutional principles is as important as distributing money efficiently.

“It looks like they would immediately set in motion needed improvements,” Lauter said. “For eight years… billions in taxpayer money has been flowing to sectarian organizations, primarily churches, without safeguards.”

Contact Rebecca Dube at [email protected]

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