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Obama faith-based office has specific goals

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Obama administration’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships wants to work with religious and community groups to achieve goals in four specific areas.

Joshua DuBois, executive director of the office, said the goal of the Bush administration’s faith-based office to "level the playing field" for faith-based organizations when bidding for government grants was important, but that the new president’s goal was to utilize the knowledge and expertise of religious and community organizations to achieve particular policy goals. Those priorities include addressing domestic poverty and contributing to the economic recovery, promoting responsible fatherhood, reducing unintended pregnancies and the need for abortion, and enhancing interreligious dialogue and cooperation. He also emphasized that the administration wanted a "policy-based partnership," and that the office did not have a political or advocacy-based agenda.

DuBois spoke at a Monday afternoon briefing for about 50 leaders of religious and community-based organizations, including most of the 25 members of the new Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The briefing was scheduled to continue all day Tuesday and included sessions with a variety of administration officials working on issues such as education, urban affairs and the budget.

Strengthening the "legal and constitutional footing" and drawing "appropriate legal lines" for faith groups receiving government dollars were also a priority and another way the office would differ from the Bush administration’s faith-based operations, said DuBois. He did not go into specifics on legal issues but told the group he wanted to "work with you all on that process."

DuBois also noted that despite the beliefs of many to the contrary, the faith-based office does not distribute grant money, although it could provide "technical assistance" to groups who were interested in applying for such grants from government agencies.

The most contentious legal issue is whether faith-based groups receiving federal funds should be able to take religion into account when hiring, which groups were allowed to do during the Bush administration. Opponents say it amounts to federally-funded religious discrimination, while supporters say it is essential to maintaining the religious character of the organization. When Obama established the faith-based office in February, a legal review was in put in place but no decision was made on the employment issue.

Reaction from Jewish leaders attending the meeting was positive.

"It’s a very good start," said Orthodox Union public policy director Nathan Diament, noting that the administration had invited a "broad and diverse group" and adding that it would be interesting to see how the office developed in the coming months.

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