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

This article originally appeared in Conscience magazine, published by Catholics for Choice.

After President Barack Obama gave a congratulatory shout-out to Joshua DuBois, director of his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP), at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Georgetown University religion scholar Jacques Berlinerblau wondered in the pages of the Washington Post "what exactly that office is doing -- a never-ending source of confusion, and even awe, among reporters, policy analysts and professors in Washington, DC."

Berlinerblau compared the OFBNP to the Kremlin -- apparently because of its ironclad hold on information about its activities, which are frequently reduced to cheery blog posts on the White House website extolling the virtues of faith-based provision of social services to people in need, but rarely addressing the thornier controversies that plague its mission.

Beneath its do-gooder exterior, the White House has taken few steps that have allayed the concerns of both advocates of church-state separation concerned about the OFBNP's constitutionality and advocates of transparency and accountability. Meanwhile, as taxpayer dollars continue to be dispensed to faith-based organizations, it is still unclear how an executive order Obama signed in November 2010, which set out new requirements intended to reduce some constitutional concerns, will actually be implemented.

Obama first launched the OFBNP in February 2009, shortly after taking office. At the time, he mostly kept policies from the Bush administration in place, including maintaining the arrangement of having a faith-based office in the White House, as well as offices in twelve federal agencies. Religious contractors and grantees would continue to receive federal funding under the "level playing field," a Bush-era term meaning that faith-based organizations would not be at a disadvantage relative to secular organizations in applying for federal funds. In one major change, Obama created an advisory council, to be made up of religious and community service leaders, to develop recommendations on how to improve the functioning of the office and increase partnerships between the government and faith-based groups in addressing societal problems.

Obama's first appointments to the council caused waves: conservatives complained about members it considered too liberal, and liberals complained about conservative members -- a circumstance emblematic of how candidate Obama's robust defense of constitutional principles had yielded to political considerations. The council members served one-year terms, and Obama appointed 10 new members in January 2011, leaving 15 slots still vacant. Unlike the first round, Obama did not publicly lay out an agenda that the advisory council would undertake, but DuBois, through a White House spokesperson, said he would once the full council is appointed.

Over the two-year life of Obama's OFBNP, however, the most controversial aspects of the Bush initiative have remained in place. Although Obama had promised in a July 2008 campaign speech that he would rid the OFBNP of two of its most pressing constitutional problems -- allowing faith-based organizations receiving federal dollars to discriminate in hiring, and allowing federal money to be dispersed directly into houses of worship -- he has done neither. Indeed, many of the evangelical leaders whose approval Obama sought during his run for the White House opposed those reforms, making their feelings known to campaign staff shortly after his stump speech.

In the two years since the OFBNP launch, church-state separation and civil liberties advocates, acting individually and through the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) have repeatedly pushed Obama to stop funding organizations with discriminatory hiring practices, as well as ending the practice known as direct funding, which permits taxpayer money to flow directly to houses of worship, rather than requiring them to establish a separate nonprofit entity. Instead, on the hiring discrimination issue, Obama said the Department of Justice (DOJ) would review instances of alleged discrimination on a "case-by-case basis," and has merely encouraged recipients to set up separate nonprofits.

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.

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."

The question remains -- how long is this all going to take? Meanwhile, all these organizations are providing services without the regulations in place.

What's more, while the executive order requires agencies to post a list of entities that "receive federal financial assistance for provision of social service programs," it doesn't require them to designate which recipients are faith-based groups. As a result, the taxpayer money flowing to religious groups remains, as it was during the Bush administration, difficult to track. There is, for example, still no single place to track which federal grants went to religious organizations. "I think it would be next to impossible for a member of the public to begin tracking" such grants, said AU's Boston.

An analysis of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act spending by the political journalism organization Politico last year found that $140 million went to faith-based groups -- all before Obama acted to implement reforms to the office -- including replacing an HVAC system in a church and replacing windows in a Catholic school. Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at The George Washington University and an expert on faith-based initiatives, told Politico that Obama's OFBNP was "almost entirely identical" to the Bush policy.

In the end, says Kramer, there's no conclusive evidence that religiously based programs deliver services, such as substance abuse treatment, as well as or better than secular ones. And that's why, she maintains, evaluation of the programs, an element missing from the executive order, is so important.

If religiously-based programs "have something powerful that they do in an intervention, we need to know about it, because it needs to be replicable," she said. "You need to know what the methodology is, and whether it can be applied in a secular way.… We can't fund Jesus Christ."


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