In his Feb. 4 address at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama emphasized a theme that many Americans would agree with.
Lamenting the “erosion of civility” in political life, Obama said, “At times, it seems like we’re unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate. And this erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens.”
But later in the speech, the president made a remark that astonished many Washington observers.
Insisting that people can still be united to serve the common good, Obama said, “That’s why my Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been working so hard since I announced it here last year…. And through that office we’ve turned the faith-based initiative around to find common ground among people of all beliefs, allowing them to make an impact in a way that’s civil and respectful of difference and focused on what matters most.”
In fact, many civil rights and civil liberties leaders say the president has not “turned the faith-based initiative around.” On the contrary, they say, Obama has failed to deliver on his campaign promises in regard to this issue and a growing political debate about it is brewing.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has led the escalating call for the president to act.
In a Feb. 2 letter to the White House, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn observed, “As the one-year anniversary of your creation of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships approaches, I urge you to restore the religious liberty and civil rights protections that were removed by the Bush administration’s ‘faith-based’ initiative.”
Lynn reminded Obama that President George W. Bush had allowed publicly funded “faith-based” groups to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and had failed to enforce federal rules against proselytizing. Obama, at a July 1, 2008, campaign stop in Zanesville, Ohio, had promised to fix those problematic policies.
“[I]f you get a federal grant,” Obama said then, “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. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”
Lynn expressed dismay and disappointment at the president’s failure to keep that commitment.
“After eight years of struggling with the Bush administration,” Lynn wrote, “those of us who support civil rights and civil liberties were greatly relieved to hear those words. Forcing Americans to subsidize religious bias and proselytization with our tax dollars is certainly unfair and manifestly unconstitutional. Many Americans freely and generously support their houses of worship and other religious ministries. But no American should be required to support religious discrimination through his or her taxes.
“Yet today, more than one year after you took office,” continued Lynn, who is both an attorney and ordained minister, “your administration has not changed these misguided policies of the Bush administration. Billions of dollars in federal grants and contracts — including those made under your Economic Recovery Package — continue to be issued under these policies.”
Concluded Lynn, “In your Zanesville speech, you asserted that ‘as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state.’ Mr. President, it is time to uphold that principle and keep your promise to correct the glaring deficiencies in the faith-based funding arena. I urge you to take immediate action to restore critical civil rights protections and vital religious freedom safeguards to your faith-based initiative.”
Later in the week, an array of civil rights, civil liberties, religious and advocacy groups joined the call for action. Twenty-five national religious and public policy organizations (including Americans United) wrote a letter to Obama asking him to make major changes to the “faith-based” initiative.
The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination’s joint letter laid out a specific set of proposals to protect civil rights and religious liberty in federally funded social services and urged Obama to adopt them. They include banning employment discrimination based on religion in tax-funded projects and issuing uniform guidelines to ensure that no person seeking help in a publicly funded program is subjected to unwanted proselytizing.
Among specific recommendations, the Feb. 4 missive asks the president to:
• Revoke a June 2007 legal memo issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that asserts that a 1993 religious freedom law gives religious groups the right to take tax funds and still discriminate on religious grounds in hiring. This interpretation, the joint letter asserts, is “erroneous and threatens core civil rights and religious freedom protections.”
• Issue policies making it clear that social-services providers must give proper notice to beneficiaries of their religious liberty rights and access to alternative secular providers.
• Require that houses of worship and other religious institutions that infuse religion into every program create separate corporations for the purpose of providing secular government-funded social services.
Aside from Americans United, groups signing the letter are: African American Ministers in Action; American Association of University Women; American Civil Liberties Union; American Humanist Association; American Jewish Committee; Anti-Defamation League; Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; B’nai B’rith International; Human Rights Campaign; The Interfaith Alliance; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; OMB Watch; People For the American Way; Secular Coalition for America; Texas Faith Network; Texas Freedom Network; The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Union for Reform Judaism; Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations; United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society; United Sikhs; and Women of Reform Judaism.
While the list of signers was impressive, there is a growing concern that the Obama administration is paying more attention to conservative religious forces than the civil rights and civil liberties supporters.
The Wall Street Journal suggested that Obama’s team is hoping to build bridges to conservatives in a bid for broader political support. A Feb. 4 article, headlined “Keeping Faith, Courting Conservatives,” noted that the president’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Initiatives includes a large number of religious conservatives who appear to be winning concessions from the White House.
The 25-member Council includes representatives from mainstream religious groups and minority faiths, but a conservative bloc is pushing for policies that jeopardize church-state separation. Its recommendations on many faith-based policies are scheduled to go to the president this month.
Many points among the recommendations are non-controversial and quite positive, but critics say at least one is deeply problematic. The Council in February voted to allow publicly funded faith-based agencies to display sectarian icons and signs in facilities where people of many faith perspectives come to get help from their government.
“Conservatives on the council,” the Journal reported, “are pleased with the direction the White House is taking.”
“As a conservative, I do feel there is a willing ear” in the White House, Council member Frank Page told the newspaper. Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, added, “If there’s ever a time that the White House needs to say, ‘We need to keep our ears open,’ this is it.”
The Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of a Florida evangelical megachurch, said Obama aides “really are trying to be responsive.” The newspaper reported that Hunter, a longtime Republican, changed his voter registration in November to independent due in part to his White House interactions.
According to the Journal, Burns Strider, a Democratic consultant who works on religious outreach and has close ties to the faith-based office, said building ties to evangelicals can “smooth the edges” that often mobilize conservative voters to oppose a Democrat such as Obama.
AU’s Lynn, who served on a task force set up to advise the Council, said he thinks many people have overlooked the apparent conflict of interest inherent in having religious leaders make policy recommendations about programs that their organizations benefit from.
In an opinion essay for the Huffington Post, Lynn said some of the Council members appointed by President Obama are powerful religious lobbyists whose denominations and groups benefit handsomely from government funds. They include representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the evangelical charity World Vision.
“Our research in government databases,” Lynn reported, “indicates that Catholic Charities (including its various affiliates) has taken at least $521 million over the last 10 years. The Catholic bishops’ conference has corralled $304.8 million over the same period, and World Vision has taken in $405.9 million. Orthodox Union-affiliated synagogues and Jewish schools have also benefited from millions in federal grants, though government reporting methods make the precise figure impossible to ascertain.”
Concluded Lynn, “Wouldn’t this be a conflict of interest by any ethical standard?”
The Obama Advisory Council has been asked not to address the hiring discrimination issue. That is supposed to be dealt with by the Department of Justice, although Joshua DuBois, head of Obama’s faith-based office, keeps saying it will be handled on a “case by case basis,” whatever that means.
Religious conservatives are hoping to prevail even on that deeply controversial issue.
Evangelical leader Jim Wallis, an Obama Council member who wants to keep the Bush hiring policy, told the Journal that White House aides were concerned that changing the policy might force some groups to stop taking government money to deliver services needed in difficult economic times.
Council member Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations told the newspaper Obama made a “deliberate decision” to side with aid groups rather than advocates that are not involved in delivering social welfare.
Advocates of civil rights and religious liberty hope Wallis and Diament are wrong. The issue is vitally important, they say, to people both in the United States and around the world.
In Kentucky, for example, Alicia Pedreira has fought a 10-year battle against a publicly funded Baptist child care agency that gave her top performance reviews but still fired her when it became public that she is a lesbian. (Americans United and the Kentucky ACLU are representing Pedreira and other Kentucky taxpayers in a federal lawsuit challenging public funding of Kentucky Baptist Homes, an agency that gets as much as half of its money from taxpayers yet discriminates on religious grounds in hiring and indoctrinates young people in its care in religious doctrine.)
Problems also are widespread in government-funded services overseas. According to a January report in Global Post, the evangelical organization World Vision received $281 million in government grants in 2008 — yet offers full-time employment only to Christians who fit the group’s creed.
Focusing on a project in predominately Muslim Mali, the story says people are being denied scarce jobs in U.S.-funded programs because World Vision is openly discriminatory.
World Vision officials don’t deny their religious bias. Torrey Olsen, World Vision’s Senior Director for Christian Engagement, told the Global Post, “We do want to be witnesses to Jesus Christ by life, word, deed and sign.” Fabiano Franz, another World Vision official, added, “We’re very clear from the beginning about hiring Christians. It’s not a surprise, so it’s not discrimination.”
Regardless of how these church-state conflicts turn out, religious lobbyists are hoping to maintain a major influence over Obama’s policies.
“I want him to listen to faith groups as much as he listens to people on Wall Street,” Wallis told The Washington Post. “I want him to listen to faith groups as much as military leaders on Afghanistan.”
Said AU’s Lynn, “The president needs to listen to the commands of the Constitution as well. We urge everyone who believes in civil rights and religious liberty to let the White House know how you feel.”