Obama upholds Bush faith policy

Religious groups that discriminate in hiring may still receive federal funding, as Bush declared in 2002. Democrats and civil libertarians are dismayed.

February 06, 2009|Peter Wallsten and Duke Helfand

WASHINGTON AND LOS ANGELES — It seemed like a firm campaign promise. Barack Obama pledged to continue President Bush's faith-based office in the White House, but with a key change: Groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

On Thursday, however, as President Obama disclosed the details of his faith-based program, he left the controversial Bush policy in place.

The decision angered Democrats and civil libertarians who thought Obama had agreed with their view that Bush's 2002 executive order went too far.

"Based on what he said, we thought the issue had been resolved," said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.).

"You'll have to ask them why they think it's all right to discriminate," Scott said. He added that administration officials are "either offended by the idea of discrimination, or they're not."

But Thursday's announcement surprised and pleased some religious leaders, particularly religious conservatives, who had a strong ally in Bush and had been pressing the Democratic president to revoke his earlier promise.

"I'm very excited about this," said Frank Page, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of more than two dozen religious leaders named Thursday to a new White House council that will advise Obama on faith-based issues. "I know he was struggling with this particular issue. But this will allow religious groups to be true to themselves."

Obama announced that White House officials might seek guidance from the Justice Department if questions arise about the legality of potential grant recipients.

In essence, the executive order, which did not specifically mention discrimination, gives the White House the option to review a specific grant for legal reasons but does not overturn Bush's broader policy.

Administration officials rejected the notion that Obama was backtracking on a campaign promise.

A White House spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, said the new executive order "strengthens the constitutional and legal footing" of the faith-based office. She said the order "doesn't resolve all issues at the outset, but it does provide a mechanism to address difficult legal issues."

"On contentious issues like hiring, the president found that one of the problems with the previous initiative was that tough questions were decided without appropriate consideration, data and input from different sides," Psaki said.

Thursday's announcement marked Obama's first official step in redesigning the White House faith-based office, created by Bush to help direct federal dollars to religious charities and social service organizations.

Religious groups such as Catholic Charities and Salvation Army have long received government money, but the faith-based office was intended to direct federal help to smaller churches and organizations.

Critics said the Bush initiative was used largely as a tool to court influential pastors and award grants in politically important states.

The hiring issue was a major point of controversy between Bush and Democrats. The president signed an executive order in 2002 that paved the way for allowing federal grants to certain groups that hired only people of like-minded religions. Supporters of the policy argued that a small Christian organization, for example, could not operate according to its ideals if it were forced to hire non-Christians.

Obama clearly singled out the policy during a campaign speech in July, declaring 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."

But once he won the election, religious conservatives began lobbying Obama and his transition team on the issue. It was the subject of intense internal debate, according to participants.

That debate is now expected to continue among the members of the new advisory council, which includes a broad range of political and religious ideologies.

Along with Page of the Southern Baptist Convention, another top conservative voice in favor of the existing policy is Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, a Christian service organization based in Washington state.

Joshua DuBois, the faith-based director named Thursday by Obama, declined to say whether the new administration would ultimately rescind Bush's executive order.

"I'd like to let that run its course and let the president make a decision based on the recommendations we make to him," said DuBois, who led religious outreach efforts for Obama's campaign.

One council member, the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of the liberal evangelical group Sojourners and a supporter of the Bush policy, said the faith leaders were told Thursday that "there would not be significant changes in the near term. This would be done slowly over time with the partners at the table."

But critics said that Obama erred in not revoking the Bush policy right away.

"To be silent on this is deeply disappointing," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

And some pointed to the irony that the first black president was keeping in place a policy that seemed to embrace discrimination.

Scott, who called top White House officials this week to try to persuade them not to back off the campaign promise, said the issue carried "racial implications" because "most churches are either 100% white or 100% black."

"If you allow religious discrimination, then racial discrimination is essentially unenforceable," Scott said.


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