Secular Group Calls On Obama To “Keep His Word” on Faith-Based Office

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of President Obama’s campaign speech in Zanesville, Ohio, in which he laid out his plan for an Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The speech thrilled advocates of a government partnership with faith-based groups to dispense services to the needy, but it also allayed the concerns of church-state separation advocates who had been critics of the Bush administration’s executive orders permitting religious-based discrimination in hiring and its lack of regulation of proselytization with taxpayer dollars.

In his speech, Obama said:

First, 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. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.

Although it wasn’t well-known at the time, proponents of faith-based efforts were up in arms about this part of Obama’s speech — the part delivered from the mouth of a constitutional lawyer. The speech came at a time during the campaign when the Obama camp was intent on peeling away those difficult-to-capture (for Democrats) evangelicals and Catholics. Some evangelicals said they couldn’t support the initiative (and presumably Obama) unless they could engage in what they call “co-religionist hiring” and be free to proselytize to beneficiaries.

Now, two years on, church-state separation advocates are frustrated by the Obama administration’s inaction on these core constitutional principles — promises made on the campaign trail, although apparently recanted privately for political expediency. The Secular Coalition for America has released a video of its executive director, Sean Faircloth, decrying the “injustice” of the religious hiring discrimination. In the video Faircloth describes how World Vision, which receives hundreds of millions in federal grants, fired three employees for “not being the right kind of Christians” and World Relief, an arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, fired a qualified Muslim because of his religion:

World Vision’s president, Richard Stearns, was tapped by Obama to serve on the faith-based Advisory Council, and has been an outspoken proponent of taxpayer-funded hiring discrimination. After the Supreme Court handed down its decision this week in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which held that a law school could require a Christian group to adhere to its non-discrimination policy in order to achieve official campus recognition, World Vision was quick to issue a press release expressing disappointment in the outcome, but asserting that the decision would not in any way erode its ability to discriminate for religious reasons. World Vision vowed to “continue to vigorously defend its constitutional and statutory freedom to remain faith-based through its staffing decisions, as do other religious organizations, whether Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or Christian.” Under this scheme, a recipient of faith-based aid could discriminate against an LGBT applicant or employee, or a single mother, or any person it could claim somehow did not exemplify its religious mission.

What’s obvious here is that Obama the constitutional lawyer knew what was right, but that Obama the candidate had other priorities. Not much has changed in terms of the administration’s perceived need to court evangelicals, whether for electoral reasons or to cobble together a coalition to push for immigration reform, as is happening this week. Politico reported Monday that the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference — which opposes equality for gay and lesbian people in immigration reform — sees Obama as its strongest ally in light of Democratic timidity on and Republican hostility to immigration reform. Rodriguez, who called Obama “our senior ally,” promised that “we reaffirmed our commitment to supporting him, pushing back the Republican wall that has opposed immigration reform.”

What will be the cost of this alliance, and does Obama really need the NHCLC? Data based on the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, released by Trinity College, shows that Catholics still predominate among Latinos (60%) and that the fastest growing segment of Latinos is not evangelicals, but “nones” (no religion). The NCHLC claims to represent 16 million born-again Latinos and over 25,000 congregations in the United States. But the ARIS data shows only 7 million non-Catholic Latinos, representing 22% of all Latinos (down from 25% in 1990), while “nones” were “up from less than a million or 6% of the population in 1990 to nearly 4 million and 12% in 2008.” Might the influence of Latino evangelicals who oppose LGBT rights be overplayed?