Obama Announces New Faith Based Office, Many Questions Unanswered

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

President Barack Obama unveiled his revamped faith based initiative today, but the rollout left a lot of questions for Jewish groups that have been bitter adversaries on questions surrounding  government funding for religious health and social service providers.

On Thursday Obama created a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships  with a more sweeping function that the office created by former President George W. Bush.  In making the announcement, he said the overhauled office will work with both religious and secular groups.  That was true of the bush administration office, as well – but from the outset critics said it tilted toward sectarian groups.

Heading the office will be Josh DuBois, a 26 year old Pentecostal minister who  was in charge of faith outreach during the presidential transition.  Obama  also announced creation of an advisory board that includes a key Jewish opponent of the previous administration’s looser rules for religious groups getting government money – Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Several sources here said there will be additional Jewish appointees to the panel; a likely candidate is Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union and a strong supporter of expanded faith based funding. Another possible candidate: Rabbi Steve Gutow, director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).

In a statement, Saperstein had this to say:

“I am deeply honored to be asked by President Obama to serve on this advisory council to provide input on policies that will address a range of policy issues, including enhancing the role of community organizations in delivering services made possible through the economic recovery plan, finding common ground on reproductive rights issues, strengthening families, and expanding interfaith dialogue both domestically and internationally. This unique opportunity will enhance the Reform Movement’s ability to speak out publicly and robustly, both when we agree and disagree with the White House’s policies.

“The opportunity to have our voice heard in the decision-making processes before national policy is decided will further the Reform Movement core goals of tikkun olam, the repair of our world, in being a moral goad to the conscience of the nation and truly being able to speak truth (as best we understand it) to power.”

But Thursday’s announcement leaves many questions unanswered, including these: will the new office actively encourage religious groups to seek federal funding, as the Bush administration did? Will the new council have a policymaking role, and will its meetings be open?

And on one of the central questions in the faith based  debate – whether groups that get government money to provide health and services can discriminate in hiring – the administration did a little rope-a-dope, saying that for now it would rule on a case-by-case basis.

That’s unlikely to please liberal Jewish groups, which say allowing religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars would be a grievous church-state violation, or Orthodox groups, which say they need the ability to discriminate in hiring in order to retain the religious character of their programs.

One thing seems clear; while the Bush office was criticized by some for emphasizing grants to evangelical Christian service providers, this administration will be more expansive in its approach.  And Obama announced that potentially controversial church-state questions will be run by the Justice Department, now headed by Attorney General Eric Holder – regarded as more of a stickler on church-state law than his predecessors.

Several leading Jewish activists cautioned on Thursday that the devil is in the details, especially since the office — like its predecessor — was created by executive order, without congressional input.

So both sides in the contentious church-state debate will be paying very close attention in the days and weeks ahead as the new administration fleshes out its proposal with rules governing operation of the office.

Jewish groups are officially digesting the new proposals and will probably have something to say in the next day or two.

But one leading church-state group quickly announced its disappointment.

“I am very disappointed that President Obama’s faith-based program is being rolled out without barring evangelism and religious discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It should be obvious that taxpayer-funded religious bias offends our civil rights laws, our Constitution and our shared sense of values.”

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.