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Faith, Hope and Charity: Why President Obama's 'Faith-Based' Agenda Must Change

Mr. President, this is not "change." I urge you to shut down the Faith-based Council and issue executive orders and regulations to ban hiring bias and proselytizing by faith-based groups taking public funds.
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Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 4, President Barack Obama asserted that his administration has "turned the faith-based initiative around," implying that his policies represent a sharp break from past practices.

That's news to me. In fact, from where I'm sitting, the core of Obama's faith-based initiative looks pretty much identical to the deeply problematic one created by President George W. Bush. A few tweaks on the margins don't amount to real change.

One year after Obama announced his version of the faith-based office, civil rights and civil liberties groups such as mine are still fighting Bush-era battles over tax funding to religious groups that proselytize, job discrimination on religious grounds in public programs and lack of accountability. It's disheartening.

I am not a member of the president's 25-member Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the body Obama formed one year ago to examine these issues. But I did serve on a task force offering the Council advice on a range of questions.

During our deliberations, I often found myself on the other side from conservative religious activists who resisted even the most benign and reasonable rules that would safeguard the rights of taxpayers and the disadvantaged as well as help preserve the constitutional separation of church and state.

For example, I argued that all public funds that go to a house of worship to operate social services should be handled by a separately incorporated nonprofit -- or at least be kept in a separate bank account so we can keep track of how the money is spent. A 2006 report by the General Accounting Office examined faith-based offices in several federal agencies and found a lack of oversight of these programs.

I also urged that publicly funded social services should not take place in a space where sectarian symbols or signs might make some disadvantaged people feel unwelcome. (Think of the homeless gay man who thinks of a large cross in a space providing dinner as the same icon wielded by Pastor Fred Phelps the last time he was in town to tell gays that they would be heading to hell.)

Conservative religious representatives on the Council disagreed. They want sectarian groups to have access to plenty of government money with very little (if any) meaningful accountability. That's the status quo; they like it.

Worse yet, some of the Council members appointed by President Obama are powerful religious lobbyists whose denominations and groups benefit handsomely from government funds. They include representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the evangelical charity World Vision.

Our research in government databases indicates that Catholic Charities (including its various affiliates) has taken at least $521 million over the last 10 years. The Catholic bishops' conference has corralled $304.8 million over the same period, and World Vision has taken in $405.9 million. Orthodox Union-affiliated synagogues and Jewish schools have also benefited from millions in federal grants, though government reporting methods make the precise figure impossible to ascertain.

Wouldn't this be a conflict of interest by any ethical standard?

But, aside from the Council, other faith-based policies in the Obama administration are just as problematic. When Americans United urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to discontinue Bush-era funding for four fundamentalist groups that openly discriminate and proselytize, DOJ attorneys brushed aside the request. These organizations, they assured AU, had been told not to violate the law.

The DOJ, so far, has even refused to overturn a Bush-era memo that gives faith-based charities a sweeping "religious liberty" right to engage in employment bias in all federally funded programs.

All this is frustrating because we were promised something better. In a July 2008 Zanesville, Ohio, speech, Obama flatly promised to repeal Bush-era rules that let publicly funded faith-based groups discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. He also vowed to make sure that these groups do not proselytize the folks who come to them for help.

Obama could not have been clearer. "If you get a federal grant," he said, "you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them - or against the people you hire - on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work."

Encouraging words. Too bad he hasn't acted on those promises, and billions of dollars in federal funds are still going out every day under Bush-era rules set up to evade long-standing civil rights and civil liberties protections.

Don't think this doesn't matter in the real world or that it's all a theoretical spat among policy wonks obsessed with arcane Beltway regulations. The Global Post recently ran a troubling story about World Vision, which received $281 million in government grants in 2008 - yet offers full-time employment only to Christians who fit the group's creed.

The story makes it clear that people in other countries are being denied jobs in U.S.-funded programs because World Vision is discriminatory. As Torrey Olsen, World Vision's Senior Director for Christian Engagement, put it, "We do want to be witnesses to Jesus Christ by life, word, deed and sign." Fabiano Franz, another World Vision official, added, "We're very clear from the beginning about hiring Christians. It's not a surprise, so it's not discrimination."

Why is government - which is supported by taxpayers of many faiths and none - subsidizing such bias and evangelistic activity?

Dissatisfaction with Obama's inaction on this issue is widespread. On Feb. 4, 25 national religious and public policy organizations sent a letter to Obama, urging him to fix the faith-based initiative. The groups range from the American Association of University Women, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the American Jewish Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society.

These groups have grown impatient with Obama, as have I, for leaving the odious Bush faith-based scheme in place unchanged.

Mr. President, this is not "change," and I am losing "hope." Please set your "faith-based" house in order. Shut down the Faith-based Council and issue executive orders and regulations clearly banning hiring bias and proselytizing by faith-based groups that take public funds.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.