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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?

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Yet the hiring issue is complicated. Some federal laws in fact allow religious discrimination in hiring, some prohibit it, and some are silent on the question.

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Many faith-based groups say it’s essential that they retain their religious identity and standards, and that staffing is key to that. They insist it is no different than congressional leaders selecting staff on the basis of political affinity or environmental groups selecting staff on the basis of a commitment to “green” principles.

Critics say that it’s unfair to taxpayers, whose funds are involved, to be ineligible for the available jobs and that religious groups provide services for government that the government considers secular.

“Government only funds tasks that are nonreligious in nature. It is not giving funds to advance someone’s religious mission,” says Ms. Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C.

For many, however, this issue could be a deal-breaker.

“Hundreds of faith-based groups do the same work as secular groups, and they draw donors because they are religious. To say that because they serve everyone they can no longer be considered religious is pernicious ... and will cause chaos out there,” says Dr. Carlson-Thies, director of social policy for the Center for Public Justice.

They point to groups with longtime government grants or contracts, such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, that take religion into account in hiring. “Maybe in an economic crisis, when calling for all hands on deck, it’s not the best thing to pass a ban and discover the fallout later,” Carlson-Thies adds.

On the hiring issue, the Obama team is likely to be cautious regarding changes, says Mr. Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington.

Obama’s initial plan proposed setting up a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, maintaining 12 federal offices that promote the initiative, partnering with states and cities, and strengthening evaluation to ensure that only constitutional programs are funded.

The Brookings report, by Rogers and senior fellow E.J. Dionne, presents 16 recommendations. They include better guidance on the prohibition of religious programming, strengthening religious-liberty rights of program beneficiaries, better monitoring of church-state safeguards, and making it easier for houses of worship to form separate nonprofit organizations to run their federal grants and thus keep government out of church business.

Despite ongoing tension over church-state concerns, most people agree the Bush years have moved the goal posts on federal funding of faith-based groups. Court rulings of recent decades have enabled that to occur. Forms of indirect funding, such as vouchers, for example, have been allowed in drug treatment, day care, and other programs. They permit beneficiaries to choose any service, secular or faith-based. “I hope the Obama administration will consider that ... it’s been accepted by the courts and shown its promise,” says Carlson-Thies.

The president-elect has set the tone by welcoming federal partnerships with religious and secular groups. He’s involved people on the right and the left in the planning process. Many are now waiting to see how high a priority he will give the initiative in meeting the mushrooming needs of the economic downturn.

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