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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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The executive order requires a working group to submit a report, which will include model regulations to be adopted by the agencies, to the White House within 120 days of November 17, 2010. The order further requires the Department of Justice to issue guidance to agencies on implementation.

While this scenario plays out -- and while federal dollars continue to be used by faith-based organizations without oversight -- Kramer added, "We don't know what it looks like in reality."

The order's requirements are difficult to monitor and enforce, particularly in rural areas or smaller towns, where alternative services may not be available, or because people seeking social services are often vulnerable and may not feel empowered to question an organization's practices.

"Certainly, it's better than no regulation," said Boston, but "I don't think there's any serious effort to provide much oversight with these grants. It would take an army of inspectors -- it's just not plausible," especially in light of current budgetary constraints. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who served on the council and the reform task force, said the executive order "involved months of discussions through all of the faith-based offices in all of the [agencies] … They really spent a lot of time about what was practical, what was not practical, how it would happen." He added that the order is aimed at moving "the entire government into universal application of standards, which have been very random from department to department." Saperstein maintained that the agencies are "much better positioned to monitor" and that the grantees are also required under the order to monitor themselves and "be held accountable."

But Kramer, who is working on a book assessing the delivery of social services through faith-based initiatives, has doubts. "The punchline is -- how do you know?" she said, referring to questions that social service providers are actually offering the secular alternative or complying with the prohibition on proselytization. "There's nothing about  evaluation or understanding how this is really administered," she added. "A working group looking at guidelines and regulations is different from implementation."

The White House, however, stands behind the order. "The important reforms put forth in President Obama's executive order on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships are well on the way to being completed," DuBois said in a statement. "An interagency working group of General Counsels from multiple federal agencies has been formed to implement the executive order, and the group has met several times to move towards implementation."

Still, though, the White House couldn't answer how that implementation will take place. Through a spokes person, DuBois said that each agency would have its own process, and that this process was independent from the OFBNP.

At the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as one example, the Administration on Children and Families (ACF) administers the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which includes grant recipients with explicitly faith-based -- and often sectarian Christian -- mission statements and approaches. According to the Initiative's website, one Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, grant recipient, Skillful Couples Vibrant Marriages, provides services "that transform families into ones that are spiritually alive: each person has a growing, personal relationship with Jesus Christ that impacts every aspect of their lives."

When asked about how the ACF is complying, or will comply with the executive order, a representative from HHS replied by e-mail, "As part of the executive order issued by the president, a working group was established to ensure uniform implementation across the federal government. There are representatives from HHS participating in the working group that are evaluating existing agency regulations, guidance documents and policies that have implications for faith-based and other neighborhood organizations. The next step, following the executive order and the establishment of the working group, will be recommendations to the president and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by the working group. After the recommendations, OMB, in coordination with the Department of Justice, will issue guidance to federal agencies."

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