By Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D.

Director, UMHB Center for Religious Liberty
University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Belton, Texas

WASHINGTON, DC – President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Thursday, February 5, to create the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  The office replaces the controversial Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives that  George W. Bush  created to provide government grants to churches and other faith-based organizations to administer welfare programs.   "The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another–or even religious groups over secular groups," Obama stated when announcing the new office at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.  The purpose, he said, "will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state." 

The president's announcement follows his selection last week of Pentecostal minister Joshua Dubois, 26, to direct the new office.  DuBois previously directed a religious outreach program in Obama’s former Senate office and holds a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton University.  DuBois also headed the Obama campaign's religious outreach efforts, which included organizing nearly 1,000 meetings with clergy across the country to discuss how government might work with faith-based and other community groups to improve the lives of people on the margins. 

Obama now faces the task of revamping the faith-based initiative while avoiding the criticism that was frequently directed at President Bush for ignoring prevailing church-state law. 

Obama now faces the task of revamping the faith-based initiative while avoiding the criticism that was frequently directed at President Bush for ignoring prevailing church-state law.   For example, many faith groups are now waiting to see if Obama will fulfill his campaign promise to prevent religion-based hiring for federally-funded positions within faith-based organizations that receive grants.   Under Bush, faith-based groups receiving government dollars were allowed to exclusively hire those of the same faith, a practice that defied traditional law and custom. Obama said in a campaign speech last summer, "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."  Obama has not specified how he will handle the hiring issue, but the executive order he signed Thursday calls for collaboration between his new office and the attorney general for advice on "difficult legal and constitutional issues." (See www.pbs.org, 2-5-09).

No previous president had been as bold as Bush in crafting a specific program that would so dramatically challenge the American principle of church-state separation.  Grants to faith-based charities during the Bush years, more than 1300 total awards, averaged more than $2 billion annually.  While campaigning last summer, Obama criticized Bush’s plan, saying it "never fulfilled its promise." Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Bush plan was the way it failed, as promised, to end discrimination against religion generally and against various religious groups specifically.  When the Bush plan was first announced in 2000, well-known evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson voiced objections to the plan because it threatened "Christian America" since groups like Scientology, the Unification Church, and Wicca might receive government money.  But this concern proved toothless, since according to one study in November 2006 reported by the Boston Globe, 98.3% of all Bush administration grants to faith-based agencies from the Office of Faith Based Initiatives were awarded to Christian groups.  The practice of excluding non-Christian groups was confirmed by a former staffer in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.  David Kuo, in Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, asserted that applications for federal faith-based funds were often rejected by reviewers because they came from non-Christian applicants.   Kuo reported being told by one grant reviewer, "When I saw one of those non-Christian groups on the set I was reviewing, I just stopped looking at them and gave them a zero. A lot of us did." (Americans United Press Release, October 12, 2006).

President Obama faces a strong challenge to administer his new office in a way that fairly and effectively distributes government grants to worthy faith-based organizations while respecting settled American law governing the interplay between church and state. 

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The mission of The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Center for Religious Liberty is to advance religious liberty for all persons, in all parts of the world, without regard to their religious, ethnic, gender, racial or national background. Religious liberty is a basic human right that must be nourished and protected by all human societies; it is the cornerstone of modern societies' efforts to build a more peaceful world. The Center advances this mission by publishing relevant literature, hosting and sponsoring lectureships and conferences, sharing its expertise with media and other public information outlets, and partnering with other persons and groups who share the goal of advancing religious liberty.  The web site for the Center can be found at www.umhb.edu/academics/crl    

 

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