What’s in a name? What George Bush established as “The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” (OFCI) Barack Obama is rechristening “The President’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships” (COFANP). According to the Obama campaign’s position paper on the subject, “The new name will reflect a new commitment to strengthening the partnership between government and neighborhood community programs.”
What’s the signal here? The Bush name implies that initiative comes from the non-profits, be they religious or otherwise; OFCI was supposed to ensure that faith-based entities were not shut out from government funding for what they wanted to do. COFANP makes the government an active participant in whatever happens–including in assessing the results. The Obama plan calls for keeping in place the faith-based offices established by Bush in 11 federal agencies and emphasizes the importance of evaluating programs for effectiveness and “best practices.” Programs will not be saved by faith alone; it will take works.
What about the pesky issue of faith-based hiring? The position paper is about as explicit as it’s possible to be on that score:
Must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs.
Gilgoff’s on the case, and reports that an ad hoc committee has been meeting to try to hash this issue out. The challenge for the incoming administration is how to stick to its guns without alienating the center-right folks–white evangelicals for the most part–who really, really think they ought to be free to hire only their own kind. Here’s how I think the Obamaites will do it.
First, the legal angle. Both constitutionally and statutorily, there are serious questions about the legality of the Bush initiative’s approach to faith-based funding. Thanks in part to the 2007 Hein decision, which prohibits ordinary citizens from challenging government funding on Establishment Clause grounds, obtaining some resolution of these questions from the Supreme Court has become more difficult, but sooner or later resolution there will be. It will be easy for the Obama Justice Department to issue an advisory ruling that, going forward, faith-based entities “out of an abundance of caution” must obey federal non-discrimination rules in hiring staff for programs receiving government funds. But those already working for existing government-funded programs will not be disturbed, and there will be soft-soap language promising reassessment depending on future court decisions.
Second, the legislative angle. The one new program specified in the Obama position paper is a summer learning program for one million children priced at $500 million annually. That will require an appropriation from Congress, and it will become clear that House and Senate Dems require such appropriation to include a provision specifying non-discrimination in hiring. The Bush initiative ran aground in Congress because of a failure to come to terms on the hiring issue, and it’s possible that GOP senators, out of an abundance of ill-will, will attempt a filibuster. But if a Specter or a Collins or a Snow can’t be sprung on this one, I’d be astonished.
Finally, the effectiveness angle. By pushing program effectiveness to the fore, COFANP will put a premium on secular competence over spiritual identity. This should encourage the faith-based to recognize that the public funds are meant to further the goals of society at large, as opposed to their own mission, and to hire accordingly or quietly abandon the exercise.