Mitz-Vote

Obama Gives Civil Libertarians a Little Faith

By Nathan Guttman

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The faith-based initiative was among the more delicate inheritances left to President Obama and his fellow Democrats by the Bush administration. The initiative — which basically entails using federal funds to support social services provided by religious organizations — was viewed by liberals as problematic at best, since it blurred the lines of separation between church and state.

Obama, upon taking office, decided to keep the office dealing with these initiatives active, but made a few changes: First, he added “neighborhood” and changed the name to the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and second, he decided to set clear guidelines for the funding of faith groups, in order to make clear that the federal government is not funding religious activity.

This week, Obama signed an executive order outlining these guidelines and, as could be expected, not everyone is pleased with them.

The order is based on recommendations made by the 25-member advisory council set up by the president, which includes three Jewish members: Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, Nathan Diament, director of public policy at the Orthodox Union in Washington, and Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Most critics focused on what is not in the president’s executive order, rather than what it includes. The order avoids tackling the biggest question facing faith-based initiatives — are the groups that receive federal funding for the social services they provide still allowed to maintain discriminatory hiring policies? In other words, does the fact that a group gets money from the government prevent it from hiring based on religious belonging or beliefs?

Obama had made clear from the start that the task of solving this question would not be part of the advisory council’s mandate, and that it would be up to the attorney general and the White House legal counsel to come up with a formula to solve the conflict. So far, they haven’t, and the executive order therefore said nothing about hiring policies.

Democrats, as demonstrated in today’s hearing at the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, were not pleased with the White House’s refusal to take on the hiring issue, and were also critical of the administration for not sending a representative to the hearing.

Despite bypassing the hiring issue, the executive order is the first major attempt to regulate federal support for faith-based initiatives. On several key issues it sets forth clear guidelines, which include forbidding groups that receive funding from discriminating against beneficiaries (meaning they cannot chose to serve only members of their own faith), defining a clear separation between the group’s religious activity and its funded social service operations, and ensuring that religious organizations will not be discriminated against in federal funding.

The debate in the advisory committee over these issues was “a long process of forging consensus,” according to committee member Nathan Diament. One of the issues that had been in debate was whether groups should be required to remove religious symbols from facilities in which they carry out the federally-funded social services. A majority of members opposed this requirement. Another debate was over the requirement that faith-based organizations should have to incorporate separately. Thirteen members voted in favor and 12 against, but in the end, Obama did not include this issue in his executive order.

Response in the Jewish community to the guidelines was mixed.

Rabbi Saperstein of the Reform movement praised the order as a “vital step toward strengthening the constitutional foundation of the rules that must be followed by religious and community organizations providing vital social services with government support.” Saperstein made clear that he had feared faith-based funding threatens the separation of church and state, but that the executive order goes a long way toward addressing some of these concerns. The Reform Movement is opposed to allowing federally funded faith-based groups to discriminate in hiring.

Nathan Diament of the OU, which believes groups receiving support should be allowed to continue their current hiring practices, said that by signing the order President Obama “has advanced America’s social welfare sector and protected constitutional principles.”

And the Anti-Defamation League, which is not represented in the advisory council, took a more critical tone. The ADL called the executive order “a significant first step” but stressed that “ultimately this order is a missed opportunity, leaving much important work undone.”


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