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can only be secured by a state strictly separated from religion

06 April 2010

Obama's Faith-Based Initiative: Throw the Constitution a Bone

By Gina Liggett

When President Obama introduced the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in Feb. 2009, an expansion of the Bush-Era faith-based initiative, he explained its underlying purpose:

[The Golden Rule] is an ancient rule, a simple rule... It asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with... or agree with... on any issue. ... That requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us to not only belief but to do. To give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world. In this way (we can) bring about a greater good for all of us... Our beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted... rebuild what has broken. ... To lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and our duty of citizens of the world. And it will be the purpose of the White Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. ... The goal... will not be to favor one religious group over another or even religious groups over secular groups... And to do so without blurring line that our Founders so wisely drew between church and state.
Obama promised to undo the Bush Administration's Constitution-be-damned permissiveness towards faith-based grant recipients, namely their evangelism and proselytizing. Another criticism of the Bush-era program, religious-based hiring discrimination, was officially sanctioned by a Justice Department ruling that okayed hiring discrimination by faith-based groups. Such groups as World Vision flaunted their lack of intention to hire anyone for their faith-based social programs who didn't meet their Christian standards.

One year ago, Obama formed a 25-member Advisory Council to examine the Faith-Based program and to draft recommendations for reform and to set goals for the Obama Administration's Office. It is noteworthy that many of Obama's appointees to that Advisory Council also happen to have received millions of dollars of Faith-Based grant money over the past 10 years, like Catholic Charities ($521 million), Catholic bishop conference ($304.8 million), World Vision ($405.9 million), and other groups such as Orthodox and Jewish organizations.

Granted these groups are on the front lines of doing the "community" work, but it is hard not to take notice of an obvious conflict of interest. On the other hand, perhaps they reasoned that a few concessions to a little piece of paper like the Constitution would keep the cash flowing. But the deed is done.

The multi-million dollars of Faith-Based programming carried on business-as-usual while Obama awaited the Council's recommendations. Finally, this month the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships presented its final report of recommendations to senior officials of the Obama Administration.

If you're really interested, the 176-page report can be read word-for-bureaucratic word.

In the report is a section on "Reform." It includes several recommendations:
  • Strengthening constitutional and legal footing of partnerships
  • Fidelity to constitutional principles
  • Increasing transparency and monitoring
  • Grant making decisions be free from political interference
  • Participants in the grant-making process refraining from taking religious affiliations or lack thereof into account in this process
  • Prohibiting the use of direct aid to subsidize "explicitly religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, and proselytization"
  • A majority of the Council (16 members) believe that the Administration should neither require nor encourage the removal of religious symbols where services subsidized by Federal grant or contract funds are provided, but instead should encourage all providers to be sensitive to, and to accommodate where feasible, those beneficiaries who may object to the presence of religious symbols.
This last issue may be significant. I think Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, makes a valid point in saying, "What is a more potent promotion of any religious system than having the central symbols of that faith (a Christian cross, for example, or religious statements like "Jesus said, 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life'") on the walls of a soup kitchen or counseling center? Many religious groups promote the idea that a single encounter with the core message of the faith can lead to spiritual conversion."

As far as the hiring bias problem, the Advisory Council was instructed not to address it because it has been remitted to the Justice Department, which has yet to make a ruling.

So, as it stands, no reforms of the Faith-based initiative have actually occurred since Obama has taken office. But the Advisory Council has issued some reform recommendations, addressing constitutional issues bashed during the Bush era, and the Justice Department still has the hiring bias problem in their court.

Obama's Faith-Based program is here to stay, and my guess is he will be highly motivated to ensure that any Constitutional glitches get fixed.

In the world view of a President who was spiritually indoctrinated in a Black Liberation Theology which links "economic justice" with "race, ... freedom, and dignity for humanity", these Faith-Based programs aren't just on the periphery of his grand purpose for "Change." In justifying the Faith-Based program, he outright declares that as Americans we are duty-bound, not only to anybody and everybody in America, but to the world to sacrifice for the betterment of others.

The fact that he throws defenders of the Constitution a bone with his promise to avoid "blurring" the line separating church and state (a pretty weak wall) is a feeble compromise to keep his duty-driven welfare train running at the expense of the wealth-creators in society -- and at the expense of the American Dream of the individual pursuing his own happiness.

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