Obama puts off big faith-based decision

Rabbi David Saperstein was named to the 25-member advisory council for the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Religious Action Center of Reform Judais)

Rabbi David Saperstein was named to the 25-member advisory council for the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Religious Action Center of Reform Judais)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — When President Obama rolled out his faith-based office, he avoided making a decision on the initiative’s most contentious issue.

Obama’s executive order last week establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships took no position on whether religious groups receiving federal funds to perform social services could take religion into account when hiring.

Some organizations, including the Orthodox Union, say such hiring practices are essential to maintaining the religious character of an organization. But critics that include the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League believe they amount to government-funded employment discrimination.

During the campaign, Obama agreed with the critics and vowed to change the rules from the Bush administration’s backing of religious autonomy on employment.

But his executive order, while stating that services paid for with federal funds will be provided "in a manner consistent with fundamental constitutional commitments guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws and the free exercise of religion and prohibiting laws respecting an establishment of religion," simply authorizes the executive director of the office to seek the opinion of the attorney general on “constitutional and statutory” legal issues.

A person with knowledge of the administration’s thinking said the White House eventually would announce some sort of employment discrimination ban on faith-based groups receiving federal funding, but with the administration still getting staff in place, it had not yet prepared the legal analysis to support such a decision.

For now, critics of the Bush rules say they believe Obama’s decision to punt on the matter was simply an effort to be thorough.

“It’s a very complex, challenging issue that pits valid moral principles” against each other — government money should never be used to discriminate vs. religious organizations’ right to autonomy — said the director of the Religious Action Center, Rabbi David Saperstein, who was also named a member of the office’s 25-member advisory council. “It’s something scholars have been wrestling with, and I’m not surprised they wanted to do it right and not rush that.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, also said his organization was comfortable that the administration was taking the time to seriously examine the issue and was optimistic Obama would come down on its side when making the final decision.

Foxman said the ADL had hoped the new administration would eliminate the faith-based office, but “if they’re going to keep it around,” setting up rules on employment would help it “do the least amount of damage.”

“While I would have preferred to see the president reiterate the idea he enunciated over the summer, the question of how that translates into actual policy is still difficult,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s legislative director.

Some in the Jewish world felt there might be room for some sort of compromise on the issue — for example, not allowing religion to be taken into account when an organization hires directly for a program receiving government funding, but permitting it when individuals are hired for other posts.

For example, a church that ran a soup kitchen in its basement could not take religion into account when hiring those who prepare and serve the food, but could when hiring the pastor. In fact, some experts said, a blanket rule that prevented any social service provider that receives federal money from taking religion into account for any job could create problems for Jewish federations and social service groups, which would not want to be forced into hiring a non-Jewish CEO.

“Extreme rules” either way “don’t make sense,” said Marc Stern, acting executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

Stern speculated that the Obama administration still was figuring out how to implement such a rule, and also noted that the president probably didn’t want to take a strong stand just yet on the employment issue because it could have alienated religious conservatives in the early days of his term.

A supporter of the Bush rules on employment, Orthodox Union public policy director Nathan Diament, was encouraged that the new president deferred the decision for further study. However the decision on religious hiring ends up, Diament said that Obama’s willingness to revamp, and not eliminate, Bush’s faith-based office was a “rejection” of the strict separationist view of church and state espoused by some on the left and a sign that Obama is serious about making religious voices a part of the public policy debate.

The administration announced that the new faith-based office, in addition to providing funding and assistance to faith-based and community groups providing social services, also will look at how the country can better address the issue of teen pregnancy, reduce the need for abortion, encourage responsible fatherhood and work with the National Security Council to foster interfaith dialogue around the world.

Obama also established a 25-member advisory council for the office to identify best practices, suggest improvements and make recommendations on the delivery of social services by faith-based and community organizations. In addition to Saperstein, others already named include Orlando, Fla.-based evanglical Christan Pastor Joel Hunter, Sojourners president and executive director Jim Wallis, African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Vashti McKenzie and Interfaith Youth Corps founder Eboo Patel.

Saperstein said the council reflects Obama’s commitment to create “a big tent with a broad range of different” religious views. He emphasized that his participation on the council would “in no way constrain” him or the Religious Action Center from speaking out publicly on matters on which they might not agree with the administration.

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