Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Faith-Based Initiative, Version 3.0

Stanley Carlson-Thies


February 13, 2009

President Barack Obama’s launch of his faith-based initiative last week was notable both for what he announced and for what he did not say.

As he promised as a candidate, he is expanding the Bush faith-based initiative. The office in the White House will now be called the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The eleven faith-based Centers in major federal agencies will continue to transform the way the government runs its programs and how it partners with community groups.

There are some new themes: attacking poverty and promoting interfaith dialogue as well as strengthening fatherhood and reducing abortions. And a new Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is to add religious and humanitarian perspectives to the administration’s thinking about policy.

Just as striking is what President Obama did not say. On the campaign trail he promised to ban what he termed religious job discrimination. Unlike Bush’s policy, the Obama administration would forbid faith-based groups to hire on a religious basis in programs they operate with federal funds. Here was the change that many of his most enthusiastic supporters deeply desire.

But no new policy was announced. Instead, what has been proposed is that when questions or complaints arise, the new faith-based office will investigate and seek legal guidance. The new council will look into religious hiring and offer advice. But no federal rules have changed.

Apparently, despite all the criticism of the Bush approach, religious hiring is neither unconstitutional nor illegal. If it were, the administration could hardly wait until complaints arise. Instead, the matter of how government relates to faith-based groups is being accepted as a policy quarrel—and a big and vital one at that.

But why tolerate the status quo, given the campaign promise and the intense desire of administration supporters to overturn the Bush policy? Principle has apparently collided with practice. The right of religious groups to hire religiously while receiving federal funds was not a creation of President Bush. All that he did was to clarify the existing law: in most federal programs, faith-based organizations have the right to hire according to religion.

Admit that and something the editorialists ignore becomes evident: many of the federal government’s long-standing social-service partners do hire, and always have hired, on a religious basis. What is more, these groups—Catholic, Protestant, and orthodox Jewish—have told the Obama administration that if they lose that right they will no longer be able to partner with the federal government.

Apply the principle and federal social services will be cast into turmoil. Millions of poor and hurting people currently served by these religious groups will lose their trusted helpers. And who will step in to replace them? As Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) observes, it is not the bitter critics of religious hiring in the offices of the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and People for the American Way who are going into prisons to help men and women transform their lives.

The federal faith-based initiative started during the Clinton years with bipartisan support for Charitable Choice’s level-playing-field rules. Version 2.0 of the initiative, under Bush, expanded the reach of those rules, reassuring faith groups that they need not abandon their faith in order to partner with government to serve the needy.

President Obama has called for an “all hands on deck” campaign against social problems. Will his version 3.0 of the faith-based initiative maintain the level playing field and respect for the faith of faith-based organizations, as it must do if these important groups are to remain full partners? Or will the extremist principle of the opponents of religious staffing win the day?

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, President
    Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”