Faith-Based Anniversary: Has Anything Changed?

This post has been updated.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the creation of the Obama administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and its accompanying Advisory Council. While candidate Obama had promised to fix the constitutional problems with the Bush-era Faith-Based Initiative, President Obama backtracked on those promises.

Obama had made three pledges: to end the exemption allowing federal grantees to discriminate in hiring based on religion; to require houses of worship receiving federal grants to form separate non-profits so that federal funds would not be directed to sectarian organizations; and to put in place oversight and monitoring of proselytizing by federal grantees.

As president, Obama decided instead to address instances of employment discrimination on a “case-by-case basis” and to only recommend but not require separate non-profits. The administration has not unveiled any plans to beef up oversight of proselytizing by grantees.

Now a coalition of civil liberties groups, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), is calling on Obama to change these policies. Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, a CARD member, said, “In order to live up to the president’s own principles, the Faith-Based Initiatives program must guarantee that no organization that receives federal funding can discriminate against those of differing beliefs, and that those funds are used for strictly secular purposes—never for proselytizing.”

The ACLU, also a CARD member, weighed in with an even harsher assessment. Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel, said:

While the current administration inherited deeply flawed faith-based policies from the Bush administration, it is very troubling that a year later, those policies are still in effect. Not even one word of the Bush-era faith-based initiative has changed. The current White House also created an often secretive government advisory committee that includes clergy who have a clear financial stake in the continuation of Bush-era policies. It’s time the administration clearly defines the line between religion and government and corrects the bad policies it inherited. The government has no business using taxpayer dollars to fund religious discrimination by religious organizations that are unwilling to play by the same rules that apply to everyone else providing federal services to Americans in need.

The advisory council Anders refers to is subject to the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires that each of its quarterly meetings be open to the public. Last year, after it was created, many watchdogs also had objected to assigning the Council the task of providing policy advice to the president. The Council is currently preparing its recommendations to the president, but according to Melissa Rogers of Wake Forest Divinity School and the chair of the Council, the drafts are not available to the public but the final recommendations will be.

Last year I wrote extensively about civil liberties advocates’ concerns about the faith-based office. Their objections still haven’t been addressed.

CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: Rogers writes to remind me that the draft recommendations were made available at the Council’s October 2009 meeting. I had recently asked her for the final advice the Council sent the president, and she had responded, “We’re still working on the final report. It will be released soon (should have precise date soon), but it’s not ready yet. Once it’s ready, it will be publicly available, and I’d be happy to get a copy to you.” I mistakenly understood her response to mean that drafts subsequent to the October 2009 version were not available — and I apologize for any misunderstanding or confusion.

Rogers also notes that the CARD supports the draft recommendations of Reform of the Office task force of the Council, which Rogers also chairs. The CARD letter states, “The Administration should adopt in full the recommendations of the Reform of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Taskforce on which a consensus was reached. Adoption of these Reform of the Office Taskforce recommendations would address the majority of concerns about transparency, accountability, beneficiary rights, and the integrity and independence of religious institutions.”

The administration is not bound to accept any of the Advisory Council’s recommendations.