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White House panel will guide faith-based programs

The 25-member council of religious and secular advisors will reportedly focus renewed attention on poverty.

February 05, 2009|Duke Helfand

The Obama administration is expected today to unveil a council of religious and secular advisors that will guide decisions on faith-based programs for a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues.

The 25-member Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- featuring Christian, Muslim and Jewish representatives -- will focus renewed attention on poverty, calling for the economic stimulus package under consideration in Washington to provide assistance to the neediest Americans, according to two members of the panel.

The group also will weigh in on the need to reduce abortions in this country, and urge new action to tackle human trafficking, climate change and military conflicts.

"We will be addressing faith and society issues," said the Rev. Joel Hunter, who leads a Florida mega-church and is widely viewed as a moderate among evangelical Christians. "This is going to be a kind of sounding board for the president."

Obama has pledged to expand -- and reform -- faith-based social service programs set by former President George W. Bush. As a candidate, Obama said that he would make it easier for groups to win grants, and that he would spend $500 million to assist churches and schools run summer reading programs.

One Obama advisor, who also counseled Bush on faith-based initiatives, said he hoped the new administration would avoid past mistakes. The Rev. Jim Wallis, chief executive of the advocacy group Sojourners, said the Bush administration politicized faith-based services and failed to coordinate them with government programs.

Bush's faith-based initiatives generated controversy partly over a policy allowing religious groups to hire only people of their faith in federally funded projects.

Obama has said agencies that receive federal grants cannot discriminate based on religion or use public money to proselytize to people they help.

"Nobody wants to make faith a criteria of who gets services," Wallis said. "But how do you preserve the identity and mission of faith-based organizations and yet practice nondiscrimination? There is a healthy balance in there that we'll find over time."

Obama is scheduled to meet with 10 to 15 of his new faith-based advisors today. Those familiar with the selection said the group includes Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Judith Vredenburgh, president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America; and the Rev. Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Other members are Vashti McKenzie, the first female bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Eboo Patel, founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit that promotes mutual respect among religiously diverse young people.

The council will work with Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal pastor and Obama advisor who will head the White House's new office for faith-based programs.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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