Faith-based reform gets mixed reviews

November 17, 2010

President Obama has signed an executive order that reforms the White
House's faith-based office in a bid to improve transparency and clarify
rules for religious groups that receive federal grants.

The
nine-page order reflects numerous recommendations made more than six
months ago by a blue-ribbon advisory council charged with streamlining
the office created under former President George W. Bush.

"The
recommendations that they've put forth make really concrete and tangible
improvements to the government's relationship with faith-based
organizations," said Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office
of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The executive order,
however, does not address controversial questions about whether grant
recipients can hire and fire on the basis of religion. Admin­istration
officials have said those questions will be considered on a case-by-case
basis.

DuBois and others said the new order, signed by Obama on
November 17, gives better legal footing to public-private partnerships.
"It . . . clarifies that decisions about financial awards must be free
from political interference or the appearance thereof," DuBois said.

In
particular, the order reflects the council's special concern about the
treatment of people who receive social services from a religious group
receiving federal funding.

"The government has a responsibility to
give a referral to a nonreligious program if the beneficiary objects to
the religious program they're in," DuBois said in explaining the order.

Melissa
Rogers, who chaired the advisory council, said the order both continues
and changes the work begun under Bush. For example, grant recipients
may continue offering services in buildings containing religious symbols
but will be required to provide beneficiaries with written information
about their rights.

"In the case of social service beneficiaries,
that's been a real worry for many of us, that they might not know what
their rights are," Rogers said.

Responding to recommendations for
greater transparency, the order calls for agencies to post online both
rules affecting religious organizations and lists of federal grant
recipients. Rogers said such steps may dispel notions that there is a
"pot of gold" waiting solely for religious groups that apply for grants.
"By having all this easily accessible, it heightens the chances that
we'll be able to demystify the process and watch the process," she said.

Obama's
order implements most of the dozen recommendations crafted by the
council's task force on internal reform, which included a former Bush
administration staffer and church-state separationists.

With the
new order in place, DuBois said "well over half" of the council's 64
recommendations—on topics ranging from poverty to interfaith
relations—will have been implemented.

Two leading Washington-based
organi­zations advocating church-state separation praised the increased
transparency and accountability in the executive order from the White
House. But both groups, while pleased with the increased clarifications,
said the order avoided tougher problems.

J. Brent Walker,
executive of the Baptist Joint Committee, lamented the order's failure
to mention the issue of whether the government should require houses of
worship to form separate organizations, such as 501(c)(3)s, to receive
federal funding for social services.

Nor did the order detail
whether grantees could hire or fire employees on the basis of their
allegiance or disagreement with the faith of the grant recipients. "This
admittedly divisive issue cannot be kicked down the road forever,"
Walker said in a statement. "It's simply wrong for the government to
subsidize religious discrimination."

Americans United for
Separation of Church and State likewise said the order dodges the issue
of religious hiring bias on the part of faith-based charities. "I'm
disappointed," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director.
"That's not the change many Americans hoped for when President Obama
took office."

Two Jewish figures, who represent conservative and liberal religious organizations, said they were pleased with the order.

"President
Obama has advanced America's social welfare sector and protected
constitutional principles," said Nathan Diament, the top Washington
lobbyist for Orthodox Jewish congregations.

Rabbi David
Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism,
said the new rules will "set the faith-based initiative on far firmer
constitutional ground, and give much broader protections to both
religious institutions and the beneficiaries than they've had so far."

The order calls for a new interagency working group that will issue guidance to federal agencies within 120 days.

DuBois
said new members of an advisory council, who will succeed the group
that finished its work in March, will be announced "as soon as
possible."  —RNS