On faith-based programs, Obama says save best, ditch rest

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s vow to carry on the best—and dump the worst—parts of President Bush’s so-called “faith-based initiative” has drawn mostly positive reactions from advocates of strong church-state separation—up to a point.

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ZANESVILLE, Ohio (ABP)—Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s vow to carry on the best—and dump the worst—parts of President Bush’s so-called “faith-based initiative” has drawn mostly positive reactions from advocates of strong church-state separation—up to a point.

“I still believe it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grass-roots groups, both faith-based and secular. But it has to be a real partnership—not a photo-op,” Obama said in remarks prepared for delivery at a Christian community-service center in Zanesville, Ohio.

Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago, affirmed the core of Bush’s effort— to expand government’s ability to work with religious charities—while cautioning against political and constitutional abuses to which such an enterprise can be prone.

“As someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea—so long as we follow a few basic principles,” he said.

“First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize. … The people you help and you can’t discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

Only those that work

Obama also said that, under his administration, federal funds would only support “those (faith-based) programs that actually work.”

In the Democrat’s speech, the clearest difference from Bush’s policy was whether religious groups could discriminate on the basis of faith in hiring when receiving federal funds.

“It was decidedly different on the issue of constitutional protections in hiring,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “It says that … if you get a federal grant, you can’t use the money to proselytize or discriminate against the people you serve or the people you hire. So that’s a notable distinction from the policy pursued by the Bush administration.”

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Hollman’s group has opposed Bush’s faith-based efforts on two counts—his attempt to have several federal laws rewritten in order to allow such discrimination and his efforts to promote funding of organizations that don’t strictly separate their religious functions from their secular ones.

But Obama’s speech demonstrated a broadly different understanding of the issue than has the rhetoric of Bush and his surrogates, Hollman said.

“It seems encouraging that he says: ‘Make no mistake, I believe in the separation of church and state,’” she said. “To me, that is signaling the importance of recognizing the constitutional principle and policy interest of protecting religious freedom while talking about the way government and religious institutions can be partners.”

Showed more sensitivity

Hollman added that Obama’s speech showed sensitivity to religious groups that express concerns about government funding churches, synagogues and mosques—also a departure from Bush’s rhetoric.

“There’s nothing here that indicates that those who would emphasize religious-liberty concerns (about the faith-based plan) somehow don’t count or don’t understand what we’re doing here or are missing the boat,” she said.

But while Obama’s speech called for closer attention to constitutional safeguards in administering the faith-based program, it also called for expanding the effort. He said he’d raise the profile of Bush’s White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“I’ll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships,” Obama said. “The new name will reflect a new commitment. This council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart; it will be a critical part of my administration.”

Bush “short-changed” the very charities that he intended to help because the effort was sidetracked by politics, Obama contended.

“Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in (Bush’s faith-based office) have described how it was used to promote partisan interests.”

"Train the trainers"

Obama said his program would be structured to “train the trainers” through large, well-established charities that work with smaller religious and community organizations. He mentioned groups such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services.

That, according to one constitutional-law professor who has studied Bush’s faith-based efforts closely, is also a substantial departure from Bush’s scheme. Chip Lupu, a First Amendment expert who teaches at George Washington University Law School, noted that Bush’s program relied on “intermediary” grants for such capacity-building purposes —and that such grants sometimes went to conservative religious organizations. That left Bush open to charges of political pandering.

“There was a lot of criticism of the sort of intermediary grants as ways of including your friends in the spoils,” he said, noting one particularly controversial grant that was distributed through an organization founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.

But using large religious organizations with long histories of operating like secular non-profits shows that Obama is interested in paying close attention to church-state concerns, Lupu noted. “If Obama is talking about bringing back major players like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services … they are faith-based in name, but not faith-based in practice,” he said.

However, Obama’s speech seemed to maintain support for direct government grants to churches and other strongly religious charities, so long as the funds only support secular services. The most ardent defenders of church-state separation oppose such funding.

Those grants continue to raise “serious issues of entanglement between religion and government,” said a statement from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said in a statement that Obama’s clarification of his views on church-state separation is “a step in the right direction, though I would like him to go further.” Specifically, Gaddy said, he would want Obama to be more explicit in rejecting direct government funding of churches and other thoroughly religious institutions.

And Hollman said the Baptist Joint Committee “would never commend (government) money going directly to houses of worship because of the risk of entanglement, both with practical and legal difficulties.”

But Lupu said it’s a sign of how far the public conversation on government funding for religious organizations has shifted in the last 10 years that the presidential candidates aren’t echoing those concerns.

“Neither Obama nor (his GOP opponent, Sen. John) McCain nor George W. Bush would say houses of worship are categorically denied form being grantees—and that’s a big change; that’s a big change that (almost) everybody accepts that,” he said.

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