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Obama likely to retool Bush’s faith-based initiative

Thorniest issue is over staffing for religious groups whose programs get federal funding. Can hiring be limited to adherents of their own faith?

By Jane LampmanStaff writer / January 4, 2009

President George W. Bush spoke during an address to the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives' National Conference in June.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/NEWSCOM/FILE

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President-elect Obama has promised to build on the faith-based initiative of President Bush and, by adding key reforms, to make it “the foundation of a new project of American renewal.” But to do that, his administration will need to resolve constitutional and other tangles that have made Mr. Bush’s effort so controversial.

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If Mr. Obama succeeds, an initiative that at times has provoked sharp division over how best to provide needy people with social services could become, rather, a unifying force in helping to address needs amid a period of severe economic duress. Faith-based groups, after all, won the most kudos for effectiveness from survivors of hurricane Katrina, and they are helping thousands now during the economy’s travails

“It’s important for the new administration to say, ‘We are going to reconcile two fundamental values: our commitment to meet pressing needs and to respect constitutional guarantees [preventing government establishment of religion],’ ” says Melissa Rogers, coauthor of a Brookings Institution report that recommends “a new path” for the endeavor.

Tackling the church-state issue head on, the Obama transition team has engaged a large advisory committee – involving people with differing perspectives on the most contentious issues – to help it design a government-neighborhood partnership.

The broad outreach “is a matter of great credit to [Obama],” says Stanley Carlson-Thies, who served in the Bush faith-based office and is participating in the discussions.

For eight years, the Bush administration sought to open the door wide to funding religious groups that offer social services of all kinds – among them job training, drug treatment, prisoner reentry, and after-school programs. It brought unprecedented visibility to their efforts and boosted the number funded by federal programs. (Overall federal funding for social services decreased under Bush.)

But the administration also pushed the envelope in ways found to be unconstitutional – such as funding groups that included religious elements in their social-service programming, a practice the courts have generally rejected. The US Department of Health and Human Services, for example, had to stop funding the Silver Ring Thing, a sexual-abstinence program for high-school students, after a lawsuit challenged its Christian content.

The most controversial issue is whether religious groups should be allowed to hire only people of their own faith as staff in federally funded projects. Some in Congress and other critics insist that groups should not be allowed to engage in such selective hiring, calling it discrimination. The debate became so intense that Congress never approved specific legislation for the faith-based initiative, and the Bush administration implemented it largely by executive orders.

Last week, in a last-minute gift to its religious constituency, the Bush administration, citing a legal opinion from the Justice Department, issued guidelines for prospective grantees on how to gain exemption from laws that specifically prohibit religious hiring.

“The administration has fought for this with every possible tool at its disposal ...,” said Ira Lupu, a legal expert on the initiative, in a Dec. 2 session of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.

Obama, in announcing his own plan in July to reform the faith-based initiative, included among his principles: “If you get a federal grant, 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.”

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