Obama Signs Executive Order Making Changes to Faith-Based Office, but Frustrations Remain

Today the White House announced that President Obama has signed an Executive Order adopting changes recommended by a task force of the Advisory Council to his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The task force on reform was one of six task forces that spent months developing recommendations for the OFBNP, finalized in a report the Council submitted to the president in March. For several months, I have been hearing grumblings from people who follow these issues closely about the slow pace of the White House’s responses to the report. The White House action comes one day before a hearing scheduled by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties of the House Judiciary Committee on constitutional issues related to the OFBNP.

According to the White House press release, the Executive Order:

Requires the government to protect beneficiaries of federally funded social service programs by providing referrals to alternative providers if the beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization providing the services;

Clarifies that decisions about financial awards must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference;

Affirms that faith-based organizations that receive Federal financial assistance may use their facilities to provide social services without removing or altering religious art, icons, scriptures, or other symbols from these facilities. In addition, a faith-based organization that participates in a social service program may retain religious terms in its name, select its board members on a religious basis, and include religious references in its organization’s mission statements and other chartering or governing documents;

Requires the federal government to monitor and enforce standards regarding the relationship between religion and government in ways that avoid excessive entanglement;

Requires agencies that provide Federal financial assistance to post online regulations, guidance documents, and policies that reflect or elaborate upon the fundamental principles of the Executive Order;

Requires agencies to post online a list of entities that receive Federal financial assistance for the provision of social service programs;

Clarifies the principle that organizations engaging in explicitly religious activity must perform these activities outside of and separately in time and location from programs supported with Federal financial assistance, and that participation in any explicit religious activity must be voluntary.

Although OFBNP director Joshua DuBois deemed the the Executive Order reflective of “important, substantive changes that are directly responsive to the recommendations of church-state experts across the ideological spectrum,” it doesn’t address all the concerns of church-state separation advocates who have been urging Obama to live up to the promises in his 2008 campaign trail speech in Zanesville, Ohio.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State calls the Executive Order “disappointing,” noting that it “fails to correct significant constitutional problems and leaves important civil rights issues unresolved.” Although the group applauded the White House for some parts of the order — like providing secular alternatives and greater transparency — its executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, expressed frustration that Obama’s action “leaves much of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative in place.” The administration’s failure to prohibit direct funding of houses of worship, as opposed to requiring houses of worship to create separate entities through which to receive federal funds, and prohibit hiring discrimination for religious reasons by groups receiving federal aid is in direct contravention to Obama’s campaign trail promise.

The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said that White House actions:

provide long-awaited improvements that bring this office in closer conformity to the Constitution, but prompt serious concerns in some areas about the chosen direction. Today’s action ensures greater transparency in decision-making regarding the use of federal money for religion-based initiatives but fails to require recipients of federal funds to form separate entities to assure no mixing of federal tax dollars and religious tithes and offerings.

“I don’t believe Barack Obama wants to go down in history as the president who helped George W. Bush roll back civil rights and religious liberty,” said Lynn. “At a time when jobs are scarce, it is especially troubling that qualified applicants can be rejected from government-funded positions because they don’t go to the ‘right’ church.”