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Rev. Barry Lynn Headshot

It's Time for Obama to Fix the Faith-based Initiative

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The White House is now pondering recommendations offered by its Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I've written here before about inappropriate financial self-interest on the part of numerous members of that Council. However, what were the overall merits and demerits of the final report presented to President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on March 9?

One major section provides 12 recommendations on how to strengthen the "legal and constitutional basis" of Obama's version of the "faith-based" initiative. When former President George W. Bush created this program in 2001, it lacked critical civil rights and civil liberties protections. The Council advises the Obama administration to make some of the changes that I have advocated for years, but the recommendations fail to include all the alterations necessary to bring the program into compliance with the Constitution.

When Obama was a candidate in the summer of 2008, he announced his vision for a dramatically revised "faith-based" initiative. And before Obama took office, Americans United and numerous other organizations presented his transition team with a concrete set of changes that could have solved all of the problems Bush had created.

Instead of moving on those changes, Obama created his Advisory Council, a body made up mostly of religious leaders. He tasked this entity with, among other things, looking at an array of legal and policy questions. In the meantime, the President did not change a single rule from the previous administration. This Bush-era regimen has since governed the distribution of billions in social service funding. In effect, the creation of the Council has had the effect, intended or otherwise, of perpetuating a deeply harmful status quo.

Many of the issues the Council tackled resulted in consensus recommendations that I support. First, the Council urged strengthening the rules requiring the separation of religion from government-funded programs. Any federally funded program must be separated in time or space from any religious activity in a facility. People being served have a right to refuse to attend any religious activity occurring there. The Council also asks the President to adopt separation rules that would be applied to all federally funded programs and to vast numbers of sub-grantees as well.

Second, the Council unanimously urged the President to strengthen protections for social service beneficiaries. The recommendations state that beneficiaries who attend publicly funded programs operated by faith-based organizations must have a right to an alternative religious or secular provider and must be informed of this right when they first enter the program.

Third, the Council urged the President to increase transparency and monitoring. Council members admitted that "it has not been easy for us to locate and access information" and documents. Imagine, then, how difficult it would be for an average citizen to find grant applications or documents. Thus, the Council requested that government agencies be required to post information, including the identification of recipient groups, on the internet. The Council acknowledged that the government has a "constitutional obligation to monitor and enforce church-state standards" in federally funded programs.

Posting information about who received grants and how the money will be used would make it easier for civil liberties activists to get a heads-up on grants that seem constitutionally or otherwise legally suspect. For example, a U.S. Government Accountability Office investigation indicated that many religiously oriented groups that got grants and contracts during the last administration flagrantly ignored prohibitions on using funds to promote their religious beliefs. (Some were reportedly surprised to learn they had any restrictions.) We have found groups using public funds to purchase Bibles and Jesus key chains, and some faith-based ministries take public funding for "secular" efforts while proudly proclaiming on their internet sites that they are Christ-focused 24/7.

To my disappointment, however, the Council failed to reach consensus on two major issues. By only a one-vote margin, the Council recommended that houses of worship that seek to receive federal funds must form separately incorporated entities to use them. (This could include setting up a tax-exempt 501(c)3 charity or other appropriate structure.) This is necessary to protect the autonomy and integrity of the religious institution as well as ensure that federal funds are not used for religious purposes.

Opponents claimed this would be too burdensome. Curiously, however, no evidence was actually offered that any groups that would decline federal aid if required to set up a secular arm.

Most troubling is that 16 Council members asserted that "the Administration should neither require nor encourage the removal of religious symbols where services subsidized by Federal grant or contract funds are provided." In the view of most scholars, the Constitution forbids government to send religious messages to beneficiaries participating in publicly funded programs through signs, symbols or iconography. Only nine Council, however, supported a standard mandating that such religious messages be removed, at least where "feasible."

Why is this such a big deal?

Frankly, the whole point of separating evangelism from secular services, such as serving meals and providing job training, is that rock-solid First Amendment doctrine forbids government entities to advance religion. What is a more potent promotion of any religious system than having the central symbols of that faith (a Christian cross, for example, or religious statements like "Jesus said, 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life'") on the walls of a soup kitchen or counseling center?

Many religious groups promote the idea that a single encounter with the core message of the faith can lead to spiritual conversion. Is someone seeking shelter going to have the courage to report that this faith-saturated environment makes her or her children feel unwelcome and very uncomfortable? And, in most parts of the country, how long will it take to even locate some alternative provider? In reality, her real choice may be whether to face the symbols of a faith not her own or go cold and hungry.

The Council report and the process for faith-based reform are now back in the President's hands. There should be no more studying, and no more delays. I hope that President Obama will act expeditiously to fulfill his campaign promises to place the faith-based office on sound footing.

This means accepting the Council's good recommendations (which were agreed to by every Council member from the past president of the Southern Baptist Convention to the religious outreach director of the Human Rights Campaign) and toughening the ones I've addressed here.

We've seen lately that executive orders -- even on contentious issues -- can literally be written overnight. That's all it would take here.