In an effort to get his beleaguered "faith-based" initiative moving again, President George W. Bush has picked Jim Towey as the new director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Towey, who has headed the Florida-based Aging With Dignity since 1996, was named today at a White House ceremony. Towey replaces John J. DiIulio, who left the office in August.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has led the opposition to the president's initiative, said the new appointment does not change the serious problems that have burdened the proposal since its introduction.
"The faith-based initiative is stalled on the tracks," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It will take more than a new conductor to get it rolling again."
Lynn said that the White House can go a long way towards alleviating the plan's problems by changing its focus away from government-funded religion.
"Bush's only chance for progress on this issue is to move away from the divisive and unconstitutional provisions of his plan as it was introduced last year," Lynn said. "By emphasizing areas of agreement, a faith-based proposal may still be able assist people in need without violating the First Amendment or rolling back civil rights protections."
Towey, who identifies himself as a Democrat and a devout Roman Catholic, has political experience outside of his work with Aging With Dignity. He was an aide to former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), but then endorsed the GOP candidacy of Chiles' successor, Gov. Jeb Bush. He also worked as an aide to former Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and was legal counsel to Mother Teresa in the late 1980s.
The White House office Towey will be leading may be less significant than it was when created by executive order a year ago this week. On Wednesday, Bush announced that the faith-based office will be part of a new White House national service office headed by Bush aide John Bridgeland. That is a dramatic change from a year ago, when Bush said DiIulio would report directly to him.
AU's Lynn believes this shift further demonstrates the struggling nature of the president's faith-based plan.
"A year ago, this initiative was the signature domestic policy of the Bush administration," Lynn concluded. "After 12 months of criticism from the right, left and center, it's been down-graded to part of an office on volunteerism. With all of these problems, it looks like Towey will have his work cut out for him."
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.