When Barack Obama took office one year ago, many advocates of church-state separation cheered. After eight years of relentless assaults on the church-state wall, often led by President George W. Bush, religious liberty boosters were eager for change.
Perhaps some expectations were too high. At the one-year mark, Obama’s church-state record is best described as mixed.
To be sure, there is much to praise. Obama overruled objections from sectarian pressure groups and lifted the ban on embryonic stem-cell research, freeing medical research from theological binds. When Obama talks about religion in America, he goes out of his way to include non-Christians and non-believers. His first appointment to the federal appeals court, David Hamilton, is known as a defender of church-state separation.
Obama infuriated the Religious Right when he observed, during a visit to Turkey, that the United States is not an officially Christian nation. The comment annoyed would-be theocrats, but it was historically and legally sound.
The White House has also urged Congress to bring the District of Columbia school voucher program to a close when currently enrolled students graduate. We would prefer to see that failed “experiment” end now, but at least Obama’s Department of Education recognizes that federal subsidies for private schools are not the answer to educational improvement in America.
That brings us to another issue that looms large over Obama’s church-state record, an issue that threatens to overshadow accomplishments he has made – or will make – in this area. We’re thinking, of course, about the “faith-based” initiative.
As a candidate, Obama promised to fix the most egregious errors of this ill-conceived Bush plan. He said he would bar religious discrimination in hiring in tax-funded programs and make it clear that no proselytism could occur.
Once in office, however, Obama stepped back from this vow. He said he would ask the Justice Department to examine the issue of hiring bias, but after a year, nothing has happened on that front. In the meantime, noxious executive orders and Justice Department policies from the Bush era remain in place.
It is past time for the president to fix this situation. He doesn’t have to involve Congress. Much of what needs to be done can be achieved by repealing ill-considered executive orders promulgated by Bush.
In doing so, the president will create a church-state legacy worth remembering.