Church, State And Obama

The President Has A Decidedly Mixed Record On Issues Of Religion And Government, Church-State Experts Say

Prominent Religious Right leader James Dobson is not pleased with the situation in the nation’s capital, especially the leadership of President Barack Obama.

“What is happening in Washington right now is my greatest nightmare,” Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, told supporters recently. He opined that everything he has worked on for 25 years is “coming apart… It’s unbelievable what’s taking place.”

If the Religious Right is unhappy with Obama, who took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States one year ago this month, then advocates of church-state separation must be pleased, right?

Yes and no.

There’s no denying that when Obama took office, many who stand guard on the church-state wall breathed a sigh of relief. The previous eight years had been difficult ones, and there was a sense that things had to get better because they really couldn’t get any worse.

Under President George W. Bush, the metaphorical barrier between religion and government took a barrage of direct hits. Bush, who was politically close to the Religious Right, aggressively promoted tax funding of religion through his “faith-based” initiative and celebrated school voucher subsidies for religious schools. He bowed to right-wing religious groups by imposing curbs on abortion and rolling back stem-cell research.

Bush appointed judges to the federal bench who were openly hostile to church-state separation. His Justice Department formed a special unit to roam the country, intervening in church-state disputes alongside Religious Right legal outfits. Monica Goodling, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, ran amok in the Justice Department, subjecting job applicants to a religious litmus test.

Bush himself often showed a cavalier attitude toward science. He gave a nod to creationism and frequently pursued policies that elevated religious views above scientific ones. Religious Right leaders were frequent visitors to the White House.

Obama represented a sharp break from the Bush approach. Although he courted moderate evangelicals during the election, Obama never made inroads into the Religious Right’s base. Its leaders were uniformly hostile to him and backed his opponent, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). When Obama won the election, the Religious Right knew its influence at the White House was going to drop dramatically.

But that doesn’t mean everything Obama has done has pleased advocates of church-state separation. Indeed, the Obama record on church and state is mixed. One year later, it’s a good time to step back and assess his record so far.

Stem Cells and Science: During his inaugural speech, Obama vowed to respect the role of science in public policy.

“We’ll restore science to its rightful place,” he pledged, “and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.”

The throng on the National Mall cheered, in recognition, perhaps, that science had often taken a back seat to theology during the Bush years.

Obama soon made good on the promise. Two months after taking office, the president reversed Bush-era policies and lifted a ban on human embryonic stem-cell research, a move that infuriated the Religious Right and other anti-abortion groups.

“Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem-cell research,” Obama said. “We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.”

On Dec. 2, the National Institutes of Health authorized the first 13 “lines” of stem cells for research. As many as 254 more lines may eventually be approved.

Obama also lifted a restriction first imposed by President Ronald Reagan that prohibited funding to international family planning groups that provide abortions. The so-called “Mexico City Policy” had been overturned by President Bill Clinton in 1993 but reinstated by Bush in 2001.

‘Faith-Based’ Flip-Flop: Unquestionably, the biggest disappointment church-state separation advocates have endured with Obama concerns the “faith-based” initiative.

As constructed by Bush in 2001, the initiative consisted of a White House office that looked for ways to funnel tax funds to religious groups that would use the money to fund social services. Several federal departments established faith-based offices as well.

The initiative was plagued with problems from the start. Critics charged that Bush was using it to divert money toward his evangelical allies. Controversy raged over questions of proselytism and hiring bias in tax-funded programs.

During the campaign, Obama made it clear he would retain the faith-based office. But in a high-profile speech, Obama pledged to pursue important reforms.

Speaking in Zanesville, Ohio, on July 1, 2008, Obama said, “[I]f you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them or against the people you hire on the basis of their religion.”

Religious liberty activists were pleased. Obama’s proposed reforms, they noted, would help clean up some of the initiative’s more glaring problems.

But once in office, Obama reversed course – especially on the question of hiring bias. Obama said he would seek counsel from the Justice Department on the issue and even implied that situations might be looked at on a case-by-case basis. To date, there has been no ruling from the Justice Department – and it’s unclear if one is even being prepared.

Since then, the question of religiously based hiring with public funds seems to have dropped off the president’s radar screen. Obama named Joshua DuBois, a young Pentecostal pastor, as executive director of the White House faith-based office and set up the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to advise him on faith-based and other issues.

A special task force that reports to the Council was also created. Last year, task force members issued recommendations for reforming the faith-based initiative. They called for developing policies to help local governments that receive “faith-based” funding understand church-state requirements, making it clear in all rules and publications that federal funds may not be spent on “explicitly religious activities” and strengthening regulations that protect the religious liberty rights of program beneficiaries, among other recommendations.

The task force, which includes Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, is unlikely to reach consensus on the issue of hiring discrimination in faith-based organizations. AU strongly opposes such bias, and the debate at the task force over the issue has been contentious.

Inclusion for Minorities and Non-believers: Obama is known as a powerful speaker whose rhetorical flourishes can inspire and motivate. Advocates of religious diversity have appreciated Obama speeches for more than just his delivery. Like no other modern president, Obama has strived to include Americans of all faiths and none in his public utterances and actions.

Again, the tone was set during Obama’s Inauguration Day speech. He told the crowd, “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth….”

Since then, Obama has included non-believers and other minority groups in other statements. He has also welcomed a variety of religious groups to the White House. In September, he hosted a White House dinner to mark Ramadan, the holiest month of Islam. One month later, Obama joined in a White House event celebrating Diwali, a Hindu festival.

In April, Obama visited Turkey and during a press conference took pains to point out that the United States has no official religion.

“One of the great strengths of the United States is…we have a very large Christian population, [yet] we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation,” Obama said. “We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

Comments and actions like these infuriated the Religious Right. Leaders of that movement were further annoyed when in May, Obama did not hold any public ceremonies to recognize the National Day of Prayer (NDP). During the Bush years, Dobson and other Religious Right leaders were invited to special White House observances during the official prayer day. Obama issued a proclamation recognizing the NDP but held no public events.

Federal Judge Appointments: Obama’s first appointment to the federal courts was David Hamilton, a district judge in Indiana whom Obama sought to elevate to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Religious Right groups went ballistic. Hamilton was on their hit list for his support of abortion rights and for a ruling ordering the Indiana House of Representatives to cease opening its deliberations with Christian prayers. Although Senate Republicans held up Hamilton’s nomination for months, a vote did eventually occur, and he was confirmed.

Unfortunately, Obama’s first appointment to the Supreme Court lacked a strong record in the church-state arena. Sonia Sotomayor served for 19 years on a federal court in New York and on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but in that time she heard just a handful of church-state cases.

Obama tapped Sotomayor in May to replace Justice David Souter, who retired. Souter was known as a strong defender of the church-state wall, and Americans United and its allies hoped Obama’s first appointment to the high court would have a similar track record. That didn’t happen.

The issue of federal judges is crucial because many church-state issues are resolved in the courts. There are currently 95 vacancies on the federal bench, representing about 10 percent of the total. This provides Obama with an opportunity to shape the judiciary in a way that will leave a mark even after he leaves office.

School Vouchers in the Nation’s Capital: During the campaign, Obama vowed to be a strong advocate for public education and showed little sympathy for voucher plans that subsidize religious and other private schools.

Once in office, Obama faced an early test on this issue when an experimental voucher plan operating in the District of Columbia came up for reauthorization – and again he waffled.

The plan had been pushed through Congress by Republicans during the Bush years, clearing the House of Representatives by one vote on a night when many voucher opponents were absent from the chamber. It was set to expire, and the two sides squared off. Voucher advocates pressed for not only reauthorizing the program but expanding it. Opponents called for letting it die.

Obama remained mum for a time and then proposed a compromise: He called for allowing the students currently taking part in the plan to finish high school but enrolling no more new students in the program.

Church-state separationists were disappointed and noted that objective studies have shown that targeted voucher students are doing no better academically than their peers in D.C.’s public schools.

Activity at the U.S. Justice Department: Defenders of church-state separation were alarmed at the actions of the Justice Department in a recent Supreme Court argument dealing with a cross on public land.

The case, Salazar v. Buono, concerns an 8-foot cross in the Mojave National Preserve in California. A federal court ordered the religious symbol removed, and Congress, seeking to circumvent that ruling, passed a special law declaring the cross a national monument and, for good measure, sold the land under it to a private entity.

The case reached the Supreme Court in October. Obama’s Justice Department, which inherited the case from the Bush administration, was charged with the task of defending the religious display.

In briefs filed before the high court, the Solicitor General’s Office went beyond that issue and argued that the man who brought the case, Frank Buono, should be denied “standing” – the right to sue. Solicitor General Elena Kagan reiterated this point during oral arguments.

Americans United and its allies were disappointed. The Justice Department’s view of standing, they asserted, is crabbed and, if adopted, could leave many Americans locked out of federal courthouses, unable to bring their cases forward.

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Aaron Schuham, Americans United’s director of legislative affairs, said Obama’s record on church-state separation is better than his predecessor’s in some ways but added there is still cause for great concern.

“Obama’s instincts run toward inclusion of all religious and non-religious groups, and that’s a good thing,” Schuham said. “His rejection of the United States as an officially ‘Christian nation’ is a powerful repudiation of the Religious Right’s view.

“But Obama’s apparent flip-flop on the faith-based initiative is inexcusable,” Schuham continued. “We had a chance to begin a thorough reform of a seriously flawed program, and we thought we had the president on board when he promised during the presidential campaign to respect religious liberty and civil rights in reforming the faith-based initiative. He appears to have abruptly shifted gears and there is no clear plan at present for civil rights reform. All of the Bush era rules still apply to social service programs. It’s beyond disappointing.”

Nevertheless, said Schuham, Americans United will continue its aggressive work to promote church-state separation with the administration and in the halls of Congress. The organization will never give up on its leadership efforts to fix the deep flaws in the faith-based initiative.

“Americans United works to defend church-state separation no matter which party is in power or who is sitting in the White House,” Schuham said. “We will continue our efforts to educate the Obama administration about the importance on maintaining a high and firm church-state wall.”