Barack Obama was not raised in a religious household, but his work as a Chicago community organizer – funded by a Christian group – stirred up a faith that begets good works. His plan to keep a White House office for federal aid to faith-based charities carries forward a vital service, but one that could conflict with religious liberty.
It was George W. Bush who first set up a White House office to help religious groups in fighting America's difficult social problems. These "armies of compassion" are on the front lines feeding and sheltering the poor, helping with drug and prison rehab, counseling troubled families.
If given far greater access to federal funds, Mr. Bush reasoned, the groups could multiply their good deeds. And so the White House set up 12 field offices in federal agencies to encourage faith-based groups, along with secular ones, to apply for grants.
Now President Obama is expanding the service vision. He wants his renamed Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which he announced this week, to also push summer learning for disadvantaged kids, and to help reduce abortion. His 25-member council of religious and secular leaders will also act as a sounding board on domestic and foreign policy – for instance, on Muslim outreach.
These are worthy activities, but like Bush, this president faces a conundrum over the separation of church and state.
In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may directly fund religious groups, as long as the groups use the money for secular programs.
Americans overwhelmingly favor this. But according to a 2008 Pew Research Center poll, they also strongly believe these groups should not be allowed to hire only people who share their religious beliefs – the heart of today's legal controversy.
Religious groups claim hiring exemption under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gives them leeway to employ only those who share their religious views.
But the law is not clear on whether this right extends to religious groups that receive federal funds, which critics say is discriminatory. Some federal statutes require faith-based groups to throw open the hiring doors for select activities, such as job-training programs. But in 2007, the Bush administration issued a memo arguing that these statutes place "substantial burdens" on religious groups, whose identity and mission would suffer if forced to hire nonadherents.
As presidential candidate, Obama pledged that faith-based groups receiving federal aid would not "discriminate" in hiring. But as president, he has decided to not rush this complex question, and he did not rescind Bush's hiring guidelines. Instead, he set up a process for hiring review.
That's a duck, but a wise one. With the economy on the skids, now is not the time to cause a revolt among religious groups helping those in need. Those on the front lines aren't helped by changing directives under each new president.
Now that it's clear that both Democratic and Republican administrations support a partnership between the government and faith-based groups, it's time to outline that relationship in Congress, with legislation.