Seal of the Department of Justice

Obama Administration backs religious discrimination in employment

Last week, 90 organizations on the separationist side of church-state politics asked Attorney General Eric Holder to renounce the Bush Administration’s position that faith-based organizations (FBOs) can discriminate religiously in hiring for government-funded programs. What provoked the request was discovery of a Department of Justice (DOJ) memo in which the Obama Administration for the first time declares the Bush position to be federal policy.

DNC rediscovers religion

Back in May of 2010, intrepid WaPo religion reporter Michelle Boorstein disclosed
the surprising news that the Democratic National Committee had
disbanded the six-person religious outreach team that, under previous
DNC chair Howard Dean, helped flip Congress to the Democrats in 2006. Dean’s successor Tim Kaine lamely insisted that religious outreach would
get cranked up again for the midterm elections, but it never happened.With
the 2012 election cycle under way, new chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz
has sent a signal that religion will again figure in the DNC operation. To wit: Last Thursday, a press release announced the appointment of
Derrick Harkins, pastor of Washington’s 19th Street Baptist Church, to
head an outreach effort. Harkins has a good resume–for a pastor. But there’s no evidence that he has ever done any political work.

Faith-based Answers

Can religion save America’s inner cities? On his blog over at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead makes a plea that harks back to the last millennium, when Clintonian welfare reform was new under the sun and the Bush faith-based initiative but a glint in its progenitor’s eye. Mead, a liberal expert in foreign policy, has been hanging around with his old friend Gene Rivers, the Pentecostal pastor in Boston who back in the day seemed like he had The Answer.Well OK. But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Rivers graced the cover (“God vs. Gangs”) of Newsweek in 1998.

New Advisors for OFANP

Last Friday, the White House rolled out the first dozen names of those who will serve on the second iteration of the 25-member Advisory Council of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFANP). Given that the last Council wrapped up its work a year ago, you wonder why not just wait for the full 25. But the wheels of nomination grind exceedingly fine in the Obama administration, and an unofficial body with no designated task to perform is not going to be way up on the vetting agenda.So far, the list is very strong on prominent Protestants, including the top bishops of the Episcopalians and the Lutherans (ELCA) plus the head of the National Association of Evangelicals. The White House also scored the Greek Orthodox archbishop. A couple of semi-prominent Jews are thrown in as well.

Faith-based Stimulus!!!

OMG, Politico is reporting, in a front-of-the-site, top of the page story by Ben Smith and Brian Tau: “Obama’s stimulus pours millions into faith-based groups.” And some of those groups were pleased at the manna from heaven! Who knew? Thanks for toting it up, Politico.But let’s see what all that pouring has amounted to. The millions, 140 or them to be exact, represent less than 2/100ths of one percent of the $787 billion stimulus package.

The OFANP Report

And the the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships completed their report and saw that it was good and presented it to the president. So what comes next?The recommendations range across a wide range of government departments, and include both highly specific programmatic suggestions and airy hopes for good things. The Council members, who will be going their separate ways with the appointment of a new Council, can use their inside contacts and bully pulpits to urge the administration to follow what recommendations they hold most dear. But for those of us concerned about of Office’s aboriginal business of facilitating faith-based social service provision, the focus remains on the need to amend President Bush’s December 2002 executive order, “Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-Based and Community Organizations.” The report includes a host of recommendations, most of them unanimous and a couple not, that would go a long way towards remedying the constitutional shortcomings of the Bush approach.

Two Cheers for OFANP

Or at least its Advisory Council. A year in, Faith-Based 2.0 (aka the Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) has come in for a fair amount of snarking, most notably from David Waters on WaPo’s Under God blog, but also from this corner. Because its mission has broadened to the point of fuzziness and its activities have been more anodyne than newsworthy, it’s been easy to miss the significance of what’s been going on.And that consists above all in the Report that the 25 members of the OFANP Advisory Council have been laboring over lo these many months. Their several task forces have delivered reports with recommendations for the Administration on engaging the faith community on issues ranging from the environment and global poverty to fatherhood and economic recovery. I’ve read through the drafts and, yes, many of the recommendations do not go beyond the kinds of pious wishes you would expect from 25 varied professionals of good will.

Faith-Based Office: No Bully Pulpit

On November 9–that’s almost four weeks ago–the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFANP) inaugurated a blog, whose initial post from Director Joshua DuBois announced:In the coming days, you can expect this blog to:
Provide more information about the day-to-day work of the White House Office and Centers at Federal agencies;Highlight the latest work of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships;Point nonprofits to federal resources that can help them implement effective programs; andSpotlight innovative local organizations that are strengthening our communities
I’m looking forward to using this blog to communicate important information to local organizations and community leaders.Since then, there have been a handful of posts having to do with meetings of the OFANP Advisory Council, HHS’s flu program and celebration of National Adoption Day, and a USDA hunger program. But not a peep about health reform. OK, so OFANP is supposed to be about non-controversial Good Things. No mucking around with that pesky faith-based hiring issue, for example. And yes, let Congress take the lead in negotiating the grubby programmatic details.

Faith-based hiring freeze

Yesterday’s WaPo article by Carrie Johnson on the Obama administration’s approach to the contentious hiring issue for faith-based organizations (FBOs) receiving public funds tells you what you need to know–up to a point. To wit: It’s a really complicated issue, there are partisans on both sides, and the Justice Department has placed it firmly on the back burner. That said, there are a couple of things that require looking into. First, since the administration has said that the questions will be dealt with on a case-by-case (and now, it seems, program-by-program) basis, has anyone out there actually raised a question and received an answer to whether a particular FBO operating a particular program with public funds is free to hire only its own co-religionists?Second, what about finding someone who supports a compromise solution? Between strict separationist Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va) and World Vision’s “it’s our right to hire our folks” Steven McFarland and Richard Stearns, you’d think there was no middle ground.

Obama’s faith-based advisers

Blogging from the Religion Newswriters Association meeting in Minneapolis, USA Today’s Cathy Grossman reports some unhappiness on the part of members of the 25-member advisory board of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFANP). They seem to feel a bit like window dressing, in the sense that they are not being given the chance to deal with the big policy issues, like immigration and housing and health care. In the case of the big faith-based policy issue–the question of what the hiring rules should be for faith-based recipients of public monies–the White House booted resolution over to the Justice Department, which has so far not delivered itself of anything that’s seen the light of day.In fact, it’s a tribute to the political adroitness of the White House that it’s managed to focus virtually all the modest amount attention paid to the Faith-Based 2.0 (the Obama version) on the advisory board, and not on what the administration might or might not actually be doing to continue to curtail the extensive Bush administration efforts to pump up faith-based social service activity. Advisers are, well, just advisers. Is anything going on in the agencies themselves?

Talking about hiring

The OFANP Advisory Council has been meeting in D.C. the past couple of days, hearing reports from its various task forces. In his account over on WaPo’s GinG, William Wan notes that although the contentious hiring issue has been formally taken off the Board’s plate and assigned to the lawyers, questions about it were nonetheless voiced yesterday. Specifically, a representative of the ACLU “got up to make a pointed statement near the end about the legal implications of allowing World Vision, a Christian group focused on helping children, to hire [to government funded positions] based on religious views.” (World Vision president Richard Stearns, who serves on the Council, announced a couple of days ago that the organization has had to lay off 4-5 percent of its U.S. workforce.)Now one might suppose that the hiring issue is so contentious because those engaged in the discussions are divided into two implacably opposed camps: strict church-state separationists and faith-based providers. But in fact that’s not the case.

Faith-Based Future

Anyone interested in following the fortunes of Son of Faith Based: the Obama Years needs to download “Taking Stock: The Bush Faith-Based Initiative and What Lies Ahead,” a Pew-sponsored report of the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy released this month. Author David J. Wright gives provides a fine (if at times understated) narrative of the Initiative since it was just a twinkle in John Ashcroft’s eye, including the extent of the Bush administration’s embedding of the thing in the federal administrative machinery, largely without congressional warrant. As Wright puts it:Whatever the future may hold, however, and whether or not one agrees with the policy objective, the methodical character, breadth, depth and scale of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative mark it as a remarkable example of executive action.Would that the Bushies had devoted half so much attention to, say, post-Katrina or Iraq reconstruction. That said, the actual impact of the Bush initiative–in terms of shifting the weight of social service provision towards faith-based organizations (FBOs)–was negligeable. Those FBOs that saw their share of the pie increase were the big regional and national agencies, not those at the congregational, municipal, or even statewide levels.

The Faith-Based Office

Say what you like about, George W. Bush’s Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives had a real public policy commitment; to wit: “Our Vision is to educate and assist new and
existing Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to apply and
qualify for competitive Federal Funding.” Before his administration was run over by the events of 9/11, George Bush’s most notable–only notable?–policy commitment was to enable religious organizations to put their faith-based shoulders to the public wheel with the help of government funds. He hired the country’s most distinguished academic advocate of faith-based social service provision, John DiIulio, to run the office, and though DiIulio soon departed in anger, federal legislation hit a wall, and the operation became mired in partisan political finagling (see David Kuo’s Tempting Faith), the animating vision of the thing remained in place.So it was natural that, when Barack Obama announced that he would continue the office under new management, the assumption was that it would have basically the purpose in mind, only in a Democratic way. (For example, on the bitterly contested issue of whether FBOs could discriminate in hiring for publicly funded positions, candidate Obama said no way.) After all, the Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships sounds like just another name for the same thing.But now, in the sixth month of the new administration’s existence, it is becoming clear that it bears only a passing a resemblance to its predecessor. For starters, a large amount of its energy has been spent on creating and managing a 25-person Advisory Board whose mission (according to  William Wan’s GinG account of its conference call last week) is “to find ways faith groups and government can work together on issues
ranging from climate change to fatherless families to abortion rates.”In fact, there’s nary a mention of faith-based social service provision as such, the Bush office’s raison d’etre.

Little Faith-based

Over at CT Politics, Douglas Koopman is unhappy with the Obama administration’s faith-based initiative so far. A political science prof at Calvin College, Koopman is one of those center-right evangelical types who was disappointed at the politicizing of the Bush effort but nevertheless remains an enthusiast of the approach. His is not the clearest exposition ever committed to writing, but the bottom line is that he thinks DuBois and company have been distracted by extraneous responsibilities like whomping up the OFANP advisory council and finding the Obamas a new church (how’s that going?). And then there’s that annoying hiring issue.Koopman thinks the Obamaites underestimated Democratic opposition to following the Bush rules on permitting religious groups to limit government-funded hiring to their own kind–and expects that the new lawyer-run approach will chip away at what he calls their “rights to use religious criteria in hiring decisions.” I’m inclined to agree.