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Obama's Faith-Based Initiative Still on Shaky First Amendment Ground

by Susan Jacoby

In a widely publicized speech in July 2008, candidate Barack Obama pledged that "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." President Obama has not kept that promise with his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which has continued Bush administration policies of allowing religious groups to receive huge amounts of federal money while proselytizing and continuing to hire only members of their own faith.

This month, on the first anniversary of Obama's executive order establishing his new faith-based office, an ad hoc group called the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination wrote a formal letter to the president asking him to make good on his campaign promises and overturn the Bush-era regulations. The Coalition includes a broad array of secular and religious organizations--among them Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Secular Coalition for America, the American Jewish Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, B'nai B'rith International, and the United Sikhs. The letter urged the president to prohibit religious organizations from discrimination in hiring in federally funded social projects and ensure that those who turn to faith-based services are not subjected to unwanted proselytizing or religious activities as a condition of receiving aid.

This was an extremely mild letter, in view of the fact that these groups have waited patiently, and largely in silence, for more than a year and that the Obama administration could reverse the Bush rules today by executive order. In other words, the president does not need a law passed by a sluggish, dysfunctional Congress--as he does to reverse the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was tougher in an article published in The Huffington Post. Responding to the president's assertion at the National Prayer Breakfast that his administration has "turned the (Bush) faith-based initiative around," Lynn replied, "That's news to me. In fact, from where I'm sitting, the core of Obama's faith-based initiative looks pretty much identical to the deeply problematic one created by President George W. Bush. A few tweaks on the margins don't amount to real change." (One of those tweaks, by the way, simply renamed the faith-based initiative the White House office on "Faith-Based And Neighborhood Partnerships.")

Lynn, who served on an early task force to make recommendations for new rules, found himself "on the other side from conservative religious activists who resisted even the most benign and reasonable rules that would safeguard the rights of taxpayers and the disadvantaged as well as help preserve the constitutional separation of church and state." One of those benign suggestions was that any public funds going to a house of worship for social services should be handled by a separately incorporated nonprofit so that there can be better government oversight of where the money goes. A 2006 report prepared by the General Accounting Office found a general lack of oversight of faith-based programs throughout the government. There's no reason to think that has changed under Obama. That the religious right would resist even a wishy-washy proposal requiring that federal money not be doled out directly from a church account demonstrates that these people are determined to garner more public dollars while hiding from public scrutiny.

The letter from the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination does not mention the makeup of Obama's current advisory council on faith-based projects, but that is a major problem in itself. The group, according to a list released by the White House press office in April, includes representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the right-wing evangelical organization World Vision, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America--all groups that have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding over the past decade. How is this not a serious conflict of interest? It's the precise equivalent of having drug and insurance company representatives sit on advisory committees about health-care reform. Oh, wait, that's the way business is always done in Washington. How reassuring it is to know that Big Religion behaves like Big Pharma and Big Banks.

I can understand why so many people who expected better of Obama have been largely silent until now about his failure to follow through on church-state separation issues. I am a strong Obama supporter and, frankly, I have been inclined to cut the administration a great deal of slack--given not only the huge economic problems the president inherited on the day he took office but the venomous, ignorant right-wing attacks he has been subjected to since Day 2. I know that any action to clean up Bush's faith-based swamp would be catnip to the Christian right and the tea partiers. But what more, really, can they do to Obama? They could add a 666--the mark of the devil--to the Hitler mustache on their posters. Bring it on.

I think that one of the biggest reasons for Obama's avoidance of these issues is not the opposition of the Republican right but of the Democratic religious left, to which he has shown far too much deference. There are many Democratic evangelical Obama supporters, like Rev. Jim Wallis--who is also on the White House advisory council on faith-based programs--who are economic liberals but who, like their evangelical counterparts on the right, want to see more religious involvement in government. Wallis is also opposed to abortion rights, and it doesn't sit well with me to see that he is a member of the advisory council while there is no representative from either a secular pro-choice group or a religion-based group such as Catholics for Choice. I am even more appalled that the president of the worldwide evangelical powerhouse World Vision, which does not even try to conceal the fact that it only hires Christians--its kind of Christians--for full-time jobs, is also on the advisory board.

One hopeful element in this situation is that the Coalition's letter represents a long overdue coming-together of secular and religious organizations committed to the separation of church and state. I was happy to see Baptist, Jewish, Methodist, Unitarian and Sikh signatures on this letter and I am only sorry that there were no libertarian Catholic and Muslim signers. I hope that this omission will be corrected in future efforts to highlight the importance of this issue. It is vital for the Obama administration to understand that there are plenty of religious Americans who are committed to the separation of church and state and whose faith is incompatible with feeding at the government trough.

The institutionalization of breaches of the First Amendment is not solely an atheist or a secularist issue. It is an issue for all Americans who understand that the dramatic erosion of the barriers between church and state during the past 20 years poses a threat to both religion and government. The 18th-century Baptists who joined with freethinkers and deists to ratify our godless constitution understood this. The ascendancy of groups that want to promote their religion with public money must stop. Mr. President, you are a constitutional lawyer. Act like one.

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