By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) President Obama signed an executive order Wednesday (Nov. 17) that reforms the White House's faith-based office in a bid to improve transparency and clarify rules for religious groups that receive federal grants.
The nine-page order reflects numerous recommendations made more than six months ago by a blue-ribbon advisory council charged with streamlining and reforming the office created under former President George W. Bush.
"The recommendations that they've put forth make really concrete and tangible improvements to the government's relationship with faith-based organizations," said Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The executive order, however, does not address controversial questions of whether grant recipients can hire and fire based on religion. Administration officials have said those questions will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
DuBois and others said the new order gives better legal footing to public-private partnerships. "It ... clarifies that decisions about financial awards must be free from political interference or the appearance thereof," DuBois said.
In particular, the order reflects the council's special concern about the treatment of people who receive social services from a religious group receiving federal funding.
"The government has a responsibility to give a referral to a nonreligious program if the beneficiary objects to the religious program they're in," DuBois said in explaining the order.
Melissa Rogers, who chaired the advisory council, said the order both continues and changes the work begun under Bush. For example, grant recipients may continue offering services in buildings containing religious symbols, but will be required to provide beneficiaries with
written information about their rights.
"In the case of social service beneficiaries, that's been a real worry for many of us, that they might not know what their rights are," Rogers said.
Responding to recommendations for greater transparency, the order calls for agencies to post rules affecting religious organizations online, as well as lists of federal grant recipients.
Rogers said such steps may dispel notions there is a "pot of gold" waiting solely for religious groups that apply for grants.
"By having all this easily accessible, it heightens the chances that we'll be able to demystify the process and watch the process," she said.
Obama's order implements most of the dozen reform recommendations crafted by the council's task force on internal reform, which included a former Bush administration staffer and church-state separationists.
With the new order in place, DuBois said "well over half" of the council's total 64 recommendations -- on topics ranging from poverty to interfaith relations -- will have been implemented.
Other council members, who represent both conservative and liberal religious organizations, said they were pleased with the order.
"President Obama has advanced America's social welfare sector and protected constitutional principles," said Nathan Diament, the top Washington lobbyist for Orthodox Jewish congregations.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the new rules will "set the faith-based initiative on far firmer constitutional ground, and give much broader protections to both religious institutions and the beneficiaries than they've had so far."
The order calls for a new interagency working group that will issue guidance to federal agencies within 120 days.
DuBois said new members of an advisory council, who will succeed the group that finished its work in March, will be announced "as soon as possible."