Faith-Based Council Reports To President Amid Growing Criticism

Members of a council formed by President Barack Obama to examine issues surrounding the “faith-based” initiative formally presented their recommendations to the White House March 9.

The president’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Initiatives met for an all-day session in Washington to present its report. While many issues were covered, one of the most controversial aspects of the initiative – the question of hiring bias in taxpayer-funded faith-based programs – was not part of the council’s mandate.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, who served on a task force that advised the council, said the issue of hiring discrimination needs to be dealt with now.

“It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room that you’ll notice no one is talking about today,” Lynn told The Washington Post.

The day the council report was issued, Americans United released a press statement urging Obama to reform the initiative.

AU said the report is overshadowed by Obama’s failure to fix problematic Bush-era rules that undercut civil rights and civil liberties.

“I am deeply disappointed at President Obama’s handling of the faith-based initiative,” said Lynn. “He has kept the harmful Bush-era policies in place and added a constitutionally inappropriate council of religious leaders to offer policy advice. This is not separation of church and state.”

Lynn noted that as a candidate in 2008, Obama promised to end hiring discrimination in publicly funded faith-based programs. But once he took office, Obama reversed course and said the U.S. Department of Justice would examine the issue.

“A year has passed,” Lynn continued, “and the president has failed to take steps to carry out his promise to ban religious discrimination in publicly funded social services. He has also failed to take effective action to bar proselytizing. Change is long overdue.”

Despite the dodge on the hiring issue, several of the council’s recommendations touch positively on other church-state issues.

Among the recommendations are:

• Require that program beneficiaries receive written notice of their right to receive services from a secular provider.

• Clarify that beneficiaries have a right to refuse to “actively participate” in religious practices, including the right to refuse even to attend such a practice.

• Make it clear that government money may not fund “explicitly religious activities,” a term defined as “any activities that involve overt religious content.”

• Ensure that organizations that are awarded federal aid undergo training about the church-state standards that follow these funds.

But not all of the recommendations favor church-state separation. The council also voted to allow publicly funded faith-based agencies to display sectarian icons and signs in facilities where people of many faith perspectives come to get help from the government. (See “Faith-Based Pushback,” March 2010 Church & State.)

A bid to require houses of worship to form separate entities to handle public funds passed narrowly, 13-12.