Obama Signals Higher Church-State Barrier for Faith-Based Office

The new president postponed a decision on whether to allow religious groups to hire based on religion.

President Barack Obama speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton.

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In launching his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships today, President Barack Obama signaled that he would erect a higher barrier between church and state than George W. Bush did with his faith-based office. But Obama postponed a decision on the most contentious issue surrounding the office: whether to allow religious groups to hire on the basis of religion for federally funded positions, as Bush did.

"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.