Where’s Obama’s Faith-Based Office?

Several religious groups, spearheaded by Muslim Advocates, met with Attorney General Eric Holder this week to press for a more robust law enforcement response to anti-Muslim bigotry — not just Terry Jones’ planned Qur’an burning, which apparently now has been canceled.

These religious leaders pressed the administration for legal action, they say, to supplement their moral voice against bigotry. The public, they argued, needs to feel confident that violations of the civil rights of their fellow Americans are not being ignored.

According to the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, one of three other religious organizations that worked with Muslim Advocates, Holder told the groups that anti-Muslim prejudice “might very well be the civil rights issue of our time.”

That this meeting was instigated from the outside is significant, because the administration has its own initiatives that are supposed to foster interfaith dialogue, including President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Yet when I inquired at the Office, which this year received several recommendations from a task force on Inter-Religious Cooperation, about whether it would play a role in addressing anti-Muslim bigotry, I got no response.

Meanwhile, another civil rights issue that could affect Muslims simmers unresolved: the Obama administration, despite a campaign promise to end the practice, still allows faith-based non-profits that receive taxpayer-funded grants to discriminate on the basis of religion. That means an evangelical group could fire (or refuse to hire) a Muslim because he or she isn’t Christian. (It happens.)

What do supporters of such discrimination call it? Religious freedom.

Late last month, I reported on how a number of evangelical individuals and organizations reiterated their support for permitting what they call “co-religionist hiring” and what otherwise is known as hiring discrimination.

I began thinking what an odd time it was to throw that particular question into the limelight: in the midst of the frenzy over Park51 and heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric, these Christians decided it was a good time to reiterate their demand that they be allowed to discriminate against Muslims (and others) with taxpayer dollars.

Notably, the three groups that worked with Muslim Advocates for the meeting with Holder — the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty — have been outspoken critics of the hiring discrimination and other unconstitutional implications of Obama’s version of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

On the other side, the promoters of hiring discrimination — who protested after Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to end the practice, prompting him to renege on his promise as president — are big proponents of financial partnerships between government and faith-based groups. They insist that faith-based and community groups are better than the government at delivering social services to the needy. The government should therefore support their efforts, they argue, and the fact that they receive taxpayer funding should not undermine their claimed need to reject applicants whose religious beliefs don’t comport with theirs.

The groups seeking a greater law enforcement response to the anti-Muslim bigotry, Gaddy said he told Holder, are looking for a different kind of partnership with government: one “with no exchange of money and with joint purposes.”  That, Gaddy added, “is the kind of partnership we should have.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email