Obama And The ‘Faith-Based’ Initiative

Still Hoping For Some Real Change

In 2008, President Barack Obama ran on a platform of hope and change.

When it comes to church-state relations, Obama did indeed create some significant change. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, had a bad habit of deferring to the Religious Right on social policies. For example, Bush yielded to these groups by blocking federal funding for stem cell research and insisting that publicly funded sex-education programs reflect a crabbed and ineffective “abstinence only” philosophy. 

Obama repealed these policies. The president also has a better understanding of the strength that religious and philosophical diversity brings to our nation. In many speeches, Obama has made sure to include mention of non-Christian groups, including non-believers, as part of the American mosaic. It’s a small change but very meaningful.

But one area where we have not seen change is the “faith-based” initiative. As a candidate, Obama promised to end a misguided Bush-era policy of permitting religious groups that receive tax funding to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff. As president, he has backed away from that vow.

The president’s recent executive order refining the faith-based initiative largely amounts to some tinkering around the edges. The White House took an existing order issued by Bush and did some rewriting. Much of the order was not changed at all.

To be sure, there is much good in what Obama issued. He is calling for transparency so Americans can learn which religious groups are getting their tax money. This is welcome. He has made it clear that no person in need can be compelled to accept services from a religious provider. We applaud this.

But the order is silent on the issue of hiring discrimination. That is a disappointment.

No American should be denied a tax-funded job because he or she is the “wrong” religion. Anti-discrimination policies have existed at the federal level since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were expanded under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Bush blithely tossed them aside. Obama should put them back.

It’s easy to get the impression that the administration is hoping that this issue will simply go away. It won’t – not as long as qualified people are being denied jobs at relief agencies that receive a lot of money from the government simply because they fail someone’s test of religious purity.

That is an affront to our nation’s commitment to fairness and non-discrimination. It must not be allowed to stand.

At Americans United, we won’t just continue to hope for real change to the faith-based initiative; we’ll work to bring it about.