Obama's Faith-Based Office Decision Mirrors Brooking Institution Report

Obama will delay a decision on allowing religious groups to do faith-based hiring with federal funds.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

The AP is reporting that the Obama administration will delay making a decision on the most contentious issue surrounding its faith-based initiatives office, which is whether to continue the Bush administration policy of allowing religious groups to consider the religious background of job applicants—to discriminate, opponents say—for federally funded positions. Instead of announcing that he'll keep or reverse the policy when he signs an executive order creating a White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships today, President Obama, the AP reports, will order a legal review of hiring practices for faith-based groups currently participating in White House faith-based initiatives, launched by George W. Bush in 2001.

Obama's decision mirrors a central recommendation from a report released last December by the Brookings Institution, which the administration has been using as a road map of issues to work through with regard to faith-based initiatives. From the Brookings report:

...[M]ore needs to be known on the actual employment practices of religious institutions in federally-funded programs. We recommend that the new administration commission a study on this issue. It would look both at programs in which religious providers are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion for government funded jobs and those that are not. The study should seek to learn what practical impact a ban on religious discrimination has had on the actual functioning of programs run by religious organizations and on job seekers of all faiths and none. The study would focus on such questions as: When they are permitted by law or policy to do so, how many religious organizations actually do discriminate in employment matters on the basis of religion in federally-funded programs and activities? To what extent do they do so? Does such discrimination affect a small number of positions, or a larger share? Do religious providers view nondiscrimination obligations to be a hindrance or a help to their work? What does state and local law say on these matters, or what has been common practice? How easy is it for religious providers to segregate government funds from private funds for the payment of employees' salaries? Under various kinds of policies, how many federally-funded jobs would be off-limits to potential employees who did not share the organization's faith commitments?

We lack data on these and related issues. This tends to make the debate highly theoretical. Data of this nature would shed light on the experiences and struggles of actual providers and job seekers and may point to a practical resolution of the problem. The report should be completed not later than a year after it is commissioned. Upon release of the study, the next administration should invite people of various perspectives to comment on the report, and these deliberations would inform the consensus process aimed at drafting proposed legislation.

It is conceivable this data would point toward a workable compromise allowing religious organizations an exemption from religious discrimination rules for a limited number of positions, largely funded by the organization itself, that link the funded program to the organization's broader mission. It is also conceivable that the data would reveal that anti-discrimination rules have far less impact on religious providers than the current acrimony over the issue would suggest. But to arrive at such conclusions, we need to know more than we now do.

The big question for now is what happens in the meantime. Before the White House finishes its legal review, are religious organizations allowed to do faith-based hiring with federal funds or not?