- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

A quasi-gathering of President Obama’s new Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships council happened earlier this week, drawing an assortment of policy wonks, Washington insiders and outside-the-Beltway religious leaders.

”It was a lot of religion and Politics 101,” one of the Jewish participants told me.

”Well, it was a beginning,” an evangelical Protestant leader said. “We only have a few months to come up with something and then we have to hand it off to someone else.”

I heard this was not an official gathering of the group that replaces President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives but instead an orientation for the 25 religious or charitable group leaders invited to serve on this council for one year.

Fifteen people active in the religious or nonprofit worlds were named Feb. 5. The rest of the names came out Monday afternoon, a few hours before the start of a two-day White House briefing on how the Obama administration plans to work with religious folks.

The 25 council members will not oversee grants to faith-based groups, but they are expected to inform public policy in four areas: interfaith work, responsible fatherhood initiatives, ways to decrease teen pregnancy and reduce abortions, and fighting poverty.

The council folks with whom I talked seemed confused as to when they meet next and what difference their deliberations will make in the grand scheme of things. But there sure was a dust-up as to who got appointed to this group.

Retired Indianapolis Colts football coach Tony Dungy was invited, but when that news leaked out several liberal groups got shrill about his support for an Indiana constitutional amendment against gay marriage. Mr. Dungy then issued statements saying he was too busy to get to the council’s quarterly meetings.

Meanwhile, conservative groups have said little about the two gay council members: Fred Davie of Public/Private Ventures (a nonprofit) and Harry Knox, director of the Religion and Faith Program for the Human Rights Campaign. Mr. Knox is no shrinking violet. He excoriated the Obama administration for inviting the Rev. Rick Warren, a supporter of California’s Proposition 8 against gay marriage, to deliver the inaugural prayer.

This week’s gathering in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building involved mostly speeches by lots of government officials, including Gayle Smith, senior director of the National Security Council, Carol M. Browner, White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, and Robert Gordon, deputy director for the Office of Management and Budget.

“They do know what they’re doing,” Florida pastor Joel Hunter, a council member, told me. “But they realize this is a new animal.”

Mr. Hunter is one of the few card-carrying conservatives in this group and, considering the backing he lent candidate Obama last fall, some in the religious right wonder whether Mr. Hunter is still one of them. Conspicuously absent are representatives from their heavy hitters: Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America or the American Center for Law and Justice.

In fact, Wendy Wright, president of CWA, arranged her own meeting with Mr. Obama’s faith office several weeks ago to plug pro-life issues. Better half of a loaf, she told me, than none.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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