- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just before he stepped down as a member of President Obama’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Richard Stearns threw down a gauntlet.

It came in the form of a press release chastising those who would say faith-based organizations that hire on the basis of religion should not receive federal funds.

“The President has said he wants his faith-based initiative to be legal and constitutional, and it already is,” said Mr. Stearns, president of World Vision, the Seattle-based international Christian humanitarian organization. “The only people trying to change the law and ‘fix’ what ‘isn’t broken’ are those who have always opposed federal funding to faith-based agencies that help the government deliver social services.”

He added, “Faith-based organizations would not be faith-based if they could not hire employees who share their values and embrace their missions.”

Secular agencies such as Planned Parenthood and the Nature Conservancy, he added, receive taxpayer funds (which is hundreds of millions of dollars in Planned Parenthood’s case) and select like-minded staff.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, naturally did not share Mr. Stearns’ view.

“The president has failed to take steps to carry out his [campaign] promise to ban religious discrimination in publicly funded social services,” Mr. Lynn said last week. “He has also failed to take effective action to bar proselytizing. Change is long overdue.”

I talked with Mr. Stearns, a member of the presidential council’s global poverty task force, about whether he had accomplished anything during his yearlong term. He said his committee had forwarded very worthwhile recommendations to the Obama administration.

One of them is to drastically increase the percent of foreign humanitarian monies to private voluntary organizations (PVOs) that are carrying a major load of humanitarian work worldwide. While U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) monies have shrunk, groups such as CARE, Bread for the World, Habitat for Humanity, American Jewish World Service, Oxfam, Mercy Corps and others have shouldered much of the load.

At the same time, the monies to these groups have shrunk from 33 percent several decades ago to 10 percent today, with the difference going to the Department of Defense and for-profit contractors. Neither of these have much experience in humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, World Vision, which upped its labor force in Haiti from 800 people to 1,000 after the earthquake, is that country’s largest nongovernmental organization. Sixty-five percent of the food being distributed there is from faith-based groups.

“PVOs have decades of experience working internationally on these issues,” Mr. Stearns said. “A lot of very specific knowledge about malaria protection, orphan care, water sanitation, safe childbirth, education and micro-finance is in this community. This community has a massive infrastructure in developing countries with employees, vehicles, offices, computers, local relationships, knowledge of language and culture and politics. When the U.S. government partners with World Vision or Catholic Relief [Services], they get all the benefit of that knowledge for the taxpayer dollar they invest.”

Thus, he has little patience with those who quibble about discrimination in hiring.

“These debates happen in ivory-tower rooms and inside the Beltway,” he said. “Out in the field, it’s a life-and-death matter.”

Julia Duin can be reached at [email protected]

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