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Obama's Religion Problem: White House Funnels Money to Discriminatory Religious Groups

Taxpayer dollars are continuing to be dispensed to religious groups via a secretive and controversial government office.

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Using federal dollars to hire applicants chosen according to discriminatory practices is "a blatant violation of fairness and religious liberty, and the president knows this," said Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, also a CARD member. In addition, "If religious organizations wish to help their community with US taxpayer dollars, we believe it's only right that they be required to create a separate, non-religious entity for that purpose -- one that would be open to government oversight…. Churches and other religious groups are free to do what they want with their own money, but once they receive federal funds, they should be required to operate by the same laws as any other charity."

When Obama appointed the 25-member OFBNP advisory council in 2009 to make suggestions for improving the functionality and constitutionality of the office, he explicitly took the hiring issue off the council's to-do list. Harry Knox, formerly the head of religious outreach for the LGBT rights group the Human Rights Campaign and now pastor to Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in Houston, Texas, served on the first advisory council. "It was frustrating to me that we were specifically told not to deal with the issue of co-religionist hiring," he said, using the term frequently employed by advocates for permitting employment discrimination. "The reason given to us informally was that that issue had been passed to the Department of Justice. And the Department of Justice has not done anything about it in two years. That seems to me to be too long."

Others doubt that the DOJ will act. "I don't think there's anything going on at DOJ to seriously address this issue," said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU). "It's the equivalent of kids asking to go to Disney World and the parents saying, 'We'll see.'"

Without the touchy hiring issue on its agenda, the advisory council was as signed other questions to study and offer recommendations on. Obama asked a council task force on reform to address constitutional issues surrounding the OFBNP. Other issues -- including promoting responsible fatherhood, interfaith cooperation, international religious freedom, environment and climate change, global poverty, economic recovery and domestic poverty -- were assigned to other task forces. The council submitted its recommendations to Obama last spring.

When asked about how the White House has implemented the recommendations of the task forces, DuBois pointed to two blog posts at the White House website, one which described how faith-based groups could help the poor better access government benefits, and another that largely described meetings to further engage faith communities in the topics addressed by the task forces.

To date, though, the most substantive action Obama has taken has been the November 2010 executive order, based in part on the recommendations of a reform task force that was divided on many issues and could not reach consensus. In one example, the group could not come to an agreement on the question of whether an organization receiving federal dollars would have to cover up religious iconography in its building when dispensing social services. Ultimately, Obama said in the executive order, it did not.

Still, the executive order contained some bright points. It "addressed some of the issues of concern, at least on paper," said Frederica Kramer, an independent social policy consult ant who has studied the implementation of faith-based policies since the Bush era. Among other things, the order prohibits organizations receiving federal grants from discriminating against or proselytizing the people it serves; requires the grantees to offer secular or other religious alternatives; and requires that "explicitly religious activities" must take place at a separate time and location from the federally funded services.

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