By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
The White House has invited a leading critic of its Office on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to join a task force that's developing recommendations for reforming the office.
Interfaith Alliance President Welton Gaddy, who opposes the faith-based office's existence, has joined the Reform of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Task Force. It's one of six task forces led by the White House's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
I asked Gaddy, a pastor, about his unusual new assignment yesterday. Excerpts:
Were you surprised by the White House invitation, given that you oppose the office's very existence?
I was a little surprised. I'd met with [White House faith-based office executive director] Joshua DuBois right after he took that office, and he said he'd love my input. I frankly didn't know if that was just a nice way of saying, "This conversation's over." But this administration is trying to bring diverse points of view to a lot of discussions that have been devoid of diversity in the past. Surprised? Yes. Pleased? Yes. You still oppose the office's existence?
I have thought all along it would be best not to have such an office, and I still have that opinion. But if there's going to be an office, I want to do everything I can to see that it is constitutional in nature and that it operates both legally and in the spirit of protecting the First Amendment's historic separation between religious institutions and government institutions. What's your top priority in reforming the faith-based office?
I have always thought there are legitimate partnerships that can exist between institutions of religion and institutions of government. Models of that are Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services. One of my primary interests is advocating that religious organizations that receive federal funds should, at minimum, establish separate 501c3 [nonprofit] organizations as a firewall of protection both for religion on the one hand and government on the other. This week saw the task force's first meeting, by telephone. How'd it go?
All the right issues were discussed. The initial discussion was very promising. The task force is going to keep meeting every two weeks by phone. The White House itself is deciding one of the most contentious issues around the office, about whether religious groups can hire only like-minded believers with federal funds, right?
Right. I was told the task force would have no voice in the hiring issue. How do you think the office has been run so far?
In taking the hiring issue off the table, there was in my mind an evasion of an issue that needed to be settled upfront. Secondly, though the principles articulated by people in this administration are different, the actual guidelines for the office remain the same as they were in the Bush administration from a legal point of view. I'm disappointed in that. Has anything positive has come out of the office so far?
I think this task force is good news, because at least it indicates that the office really does want recommendations on how it can find more solid constitutional grounds on which to operate.