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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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.

DuBois said the advisory council was a response to the Bush office of faith based initiatives lacking "a feedback mechanism for secular and religious leaders to provide guidance and advice."

While staying silent on the hiring issue, Obama's executive order did vow broad commitment to respecting church-state separation, which was absent in Bush's executive orders around faith-based initiatives. Obama's order articulated a goal of "preserving our fundamental constitutional commitments guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws and the free exercise of religion and forbidding the establishment of religion."

"A key part of my job is seeking advice from the White House counsel and the attorney general on legal matters to strengthen the constitutionality of the office," DuBois said. "The executive order created a review mechanism to do that that didn't exist before."

In rolling out the new faith-based office, Obama also vowed to broaden the scope of its work, which had traditionally been limited to helping providers of social services. The White House says the office will now also work to reduce abortion and to promote responsible fathering and will engage religious leaders from around the world in interfaith dialogue.