Friday, February 6, 2009

President Obama‘s new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships earned him praise for a diverse approach but also criticism for not issuing a broader order to say that government-funded faith groups cannot discriminate.

Mr. Obama on Thursday signed an executive order to create the office, which is similar in structure to the Bush administration’s and has four priorities: fighting poverty and helping with economic recovery efforts; crafting ways to support young mothers and decrease teenage pregnancies to reduce abortions; encouraging responsible fatherhood; and fostering an international interfaith dialogue.

“No matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone,” Mr. Obama said after signing the order in private at the White House.

The president stressed the office would strictly adhere to his belief in the separation of church and state, and the executive order contains provisions to make sure the leader can seek the attorney general’s advice on “difficult legal and constitutional issues.”

It will have a White House office and centers for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships within executive branch agencies. Some examples are the ex-offender re-entry program through the Department of Justice and the international HIV/AIDS efforts through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The White House said the office will help make policy and be the mechanism for federal agencies to connect with social services groups. The new council also would help nonprofit and community groups “cut through red tape” and “make the most of what the federal government has to offer.”

Mr. Obama added a bipartisan President’s Council made up of 25 leaders, both secular and religious, who will advise the faith office on policy.

The new office also will expand with the formation of task forces that could recommend policy on poverty or climate change, said Joshua DuBois, who will lead the faith-based office.

Mr. Dubois, a longtime Obama adviser who ran religious outreach during the presidential campaign, told The Washington Times that the council will likely meet each quarter and its budget will come from the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Mr. Obama will seek the council’s research and advice and is “going to be a full partner in this process,” Mr. Dubois said.

But some religious groups and civil liberties advocates said they found it “of great concern” the president did not insist that faith groups getting government funding cannot discriminate, even though Mr. Obama’s executive order offered stronger constitutional guidance.

The ACLU also called the council “troubling” and “unprecedented” because religious leaders will mostly form a federal advisory committee. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU legislative office in Washington, said it was muddy territory for the president, suggesting that he is “giving his favored clergy a governmental stamp of approval.”

“He should have abolished the discriminatory rules of his predecessor before greasing the way for more federal funds going to religious groups,” added Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU.

Interfaith Alliance’s president, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, said the move was a welcome change from former President George W. Bush’s faith office, which he said had no constitutional boundaries and was blatantly political.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs left a window open for the president to issue such an order down the line, saying the executive order “provides a mechanism that didn’t exist in order to look at all of the legal issues that are surrounding the hiring and the functionality of faith-based organizations as they help to deliver what the president believes is needed help.”

At the National Prayer Breakfast earlier Thursday, Mr. Obama said faith can unite everyone for the “greater good” to fight poverty, seek peace and rebuild the nation in times of struggle.

“No matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate,” Mr. Obama said. “There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.”

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide