Advisers urge caution on religious/federal partnerships

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WASHINGTON (RNS) White House advisers recommended Tuesday (Oct. 13) that federal officials do more to ensure that government partnerships with faith-based groups are constitutional, transparent and support religious liberty.

“We want to make sure that (religious providers of social services) understand all these ideas … so that they’re not confused, they’re not hamstrung and they’re not sued,” said Melissa Rogers, a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

But Rogers, director of the Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Life, said advisers who are tasked with reforming the White House faith-based office differ on whether faith-based groups that receive federal grants should remove religious symbols or form separate corporations for taxpayer-funded charitable work.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, a member of the task force who attended the council meeting, said he thinks such symbols should be avoided whenever possible.

“I do think that religious symbols, icons and scriptures should, except in extraordinary circumstances, not be present in a space providing a government-funded service,” said Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Richard Stearns, president of the Christian relief agency World Vision and a member of the council, said that it “lacks common sense” for such disputes to focus more on the symbols than the effectiveness of the programs.

“Because of a cross or a Star of David in the room, do we require that organization to change its identity in order to deliver that social service?” he asked as almost two dozen council members deliberated around a table in a Department of Commerce meeting room.

“I think the goal here should be … not to hamper or hinder these organizations from doing the good that they can do, but to enable and empower them while protecting the rights of both parties, the beneficiary and the service delivery organization.”

Advisers agreed that a Bush administration executive order on faith-based and community organizations should be amended to ensure that grant-making decisions are made “free from political interference or even the appearance of political interference,” Rogers said.

Over the course of a daylong meeting, council members gave suggestions on five other focus areas related to religious/federal partnerships:

— The fatherhood task force recommended increased federal funding of programs to assist fathers, including military and incarcerated dads.

— The task force on economic recovery and domestic poverty called for efforts to permanently reduce U.S. poverty rates.

— The interreligious cooperation task force recommended creating a working group of multi-religious and community groups to advise the Obama administration on a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

— The environment and climate change task force urged the creation of an Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Environmental Protection Agency.

— The global poverty and development task force called for the launch of a public campaign to involve the American public in ending global poverty.

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