AU Joins Broad Coalition Of Groups Asking Obama To Reform ‘Faith-Based’ Initiative

AU’s Lynn Says President’s Remarks At Prayer Breakfast Give Wrong Impression That Bush Policy’s Constitutional And Civil Rights Flaws Have Been Fixed

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today joined 25 national religious and public policy organizations in a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to make major changes to the “faith-based” initiative.

The joint letter to the president lays out a specific set of proposals to protect civil rights and religious liberty in federally funded social services and urges Obama to adopt them. They include banning employment discrimination based on religion in tax-funded projects and issuing uniform guidelines to ensure that no person seeking help in a publicly funded program is subjected to unwanted proselytizing.

In a speech today at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama insisted that his administration has “turned the faith-based initiative around.” In fact, leaders of civil rights, civil liberties and religious groups say the president has failed to correct Bush-era policies.

“I was surprised and disappointed to hear President Obama suggest that the faith-based initiative has somehow been ‘turned around,’” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “In fact, in all significant ways, the Obama faith-based initiative right now is the same as the Bush faith-based initiative.

“The Bush rules and regulations are all still in place,” Lynn continued. “Administration officials have failed to safeguard the vital constitutional boundary between church and state, and they have not restored the damage to civil rights law.”

The joint letter notes that Obama, as a candidate, promised to reform the faith-based initiative – a concept first pioneered under the administration of George W. Bush. Yet since taking office, Obama has kept in place various rules and executive orders promulgated during the Bush administration.

Asserts the letter, “We urge you to act now to restore the constitutionally required safeguards and civil rights protections governing partnerships between government and religiously affiliated institutions – standard operating procedures that had been largely in place for decades prior to the creation of the Faith-Based Initiative.”

Among specific recommendations, the letter asks the president to:

• Revoke a June 2007 legal memo issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that asserts that a 1993 religious freedom law gives religious groups the right to take tax funds and still discriminate on religious grounds in hiring. This interpretation, the joint letter asserts, is “erroneous and threatens core civil rights and religious freedom protections.”

• Issue policies making it clear that social-services providers must give proper notice to beneficiaries of their religious liberty rights and access to alternative secular providers.

• Require that houses of worship and other religious institutions that infuse religion into every program create separate corporations for the purpose of providing secular government-funded social services.

Aside from Americans United, groups signing the letter are: African American Ministers in Action; American Association of University Women; American Civil Liberties Union; American Humanist Association; American Jewish Committee; Anti-Defamation League; Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; B’nai B’rith International; Human Rights Campaign; The Interfaith Alliance; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; OMB Watch; People For the American Way; Secular Coalition for America; Texas Faith Network; Texas Freedom Network; The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Union for Reform Judaism; Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations; United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society; United Sikhs; and Women of Reform Judaism.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.