Obama's Faith-Based Office Launch Delays Key Decision on Faith-Based Hiring

Launching a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Obama hedged on hiring.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

I've got a story up on usnews.com about President Obama's rollout yesterday of his faith-based partnerships. The bottom line is that Obama hedged on the hardest decision he had to make, the one that everyone on the left and the right was anticipating: whether to allow faith-based groups to hire based on religion with federal funds. Here's the heart of my piece: 

"He's leaving all the substantive options and directions open" on the question of faith-based hiring, says Ira Lupu, a George Washington University Law School professor who specializes in church-state issues. "He's saying, 'Let's see what the lawyers tell me.'"

Obama's executive order establishing the office, which he signed after addressing this morning's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, creates a mechanism for the office to consult with the White House legal counsel and the Justice Department to sort through complex legal issues like faith-based hiring.

While giving hope to religious organizations like World Vision, which has said it will back out of faith-based initiatives if forced to alter its hiring practices, Obama's delay on a hiring decision upset church-state separation watchdogs and liberal religious groups.

"President Obama needs to make good on his campaign promise that tax dollars aren't used to unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of religion," said Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way.

She added: "It's disappointing that today President Obama has missed an opportunity to put it into practice immediately.

World Vision disagreed. "The president is taking a very practical and responsible approach to the whole issue of faith-based initiatives, including religious hiring rights issues," Joe Mettimano, the group's vice president for advocacy, said in an interview.

Until Obama formally reverses the Bush policy exempting faith-based organizations from following nondiscrimination rules with federal funds, such groups can continue to use faith-based hiring, legal experts said.

The newly named director of the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office, Joshua DuBois, said that it was impossible to give a timeline for resolving the hiring issue and that resolution might come on a case-by-case basis, rather than in a sweeping policy directive.

"This is an area of unclear policy and practice, but we can now begin seeking the advice of government and outside actors and see what groups are doing on the ground," said DuBois, who had previously served as religious outreach director of Obama's presidential campaign. "The previous administration made decisions without understanding the state of law and practice."

On the campaign trail last year, Obama vowed to reverse the Bush hiring policy. "As someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state," Obama said last July in a speech that pledged to expand Bush's office of faith-based initiatives. "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."

Supporters of that position, including the political left, secular groups, and some religious minorities, said they still hope that Obama reverses the Bush policy on hiring. "They ran into the reality that this is a complex issue that pits moral principals against one another," said Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, who has advised the administration on faith issues and supports reversing the Bush policy. "They want to get it right, and they are trying to walk a tightrope."

The decision to seek legal review of faith-based hiring before deciding on the matter mirrors a recommendation from a Brookings Institution report on faith-based initiatives issues last year, which the Obama administration has used as a road map for navigating legal, political and operational issues of faith based initiatives. The Brookings report advises against allowing religious organizations to engage in federally funded faith-based hiring. One of its principal authors, Wake Forest Divinity School professor Melissa Rogers, sits on a White House advisory committee on faith-based initiatives, which also was announced today.

The President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which will eventually comprise 25 faith and social service experts, also includes staunch supporters of government-backed faith-based hiring, including World Vision President Richard Stearns.

Eventually, legal experts say, the Obama administration will have to go with one camp or the other on the hiring question. "I just don't see a middle ground," says George Washington University's Lupu.

The White House sees all the obsessing over the hiring question as a distraction from other big news in the launch of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Here's what the Obama administration considered to be the important news yesterday:

1. Under Obama, the faith-based initiatives office will be significantly expanded in scope from the Bush years. Its portfolio will include abortion reduction, promoting responsible fathering, and engaging in global interfaith dialogue, particularly with the Muslim world.

2. Whereas the Bush faith-based initiatives program was criticized for an overly evangelical orientation, Obama's faith-based partnerships will be advised by an outside panel that includes Jewish, Muslim, mainline Protestant, and Catholic members, along with representatives of secular organizations.

3. Though the administration kicks the can down the road on the hiring question, Obama's executive order creates a legal mechanism for working through the issue and increasing what DuBois, the new faith-based office director, calls the "constitutionality" of the office.

Like so much in this new administration, we'll have to wait and see if the faith-based office winds up achieving its stated ambitions.