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White House faith council wants clearer guidelines

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama’s faith-based advisory council urged clearer guidelines on church-state separation in faith-based funding, but members differed on some critical details.

The 25-member commission, which includes three Jewish leaders, presented the White House on Tuesday with an array of recommendations having to do with poverty, the environment and families.

The crux of the report, however, was its final section on reforming the White House faith-based funding office established by President George W. Bush.

The council urged the White House to "clarify prohibited uses of direct Federal financial assistance," but it could not agree on mechanisms to keep government from funding religious activity. Some council members wanted the government to urge religious grantees to set up separate tax-exempt bodies, while others were concerned that this would be overly burdensome.

In another example, some council members wanted grantees to be careful not to conduct activities in rooms replete with religious symbols, while others felt this went too far.

The disagreements reflected the broad range of organizations Obama invited to participate. Among the council’s three Jews, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform’s Religion Action Center, and Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, are known for taking a harder line on church-state separation, while Nathan Diament, who directs the Orthodox Union’s Washington office, has counseled allowing grantees a greater deal of discretion in accommodating their beliefs when using government funds.

A number of other top Jewish officials joined council task forces on poverty and development.

Separately, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, an alliance that includes six national Jewish groups — including two allied with Saperstein’s RAC — urged Obama to adopt the council’s recommendations, and also to amend Bush’s orders establishing the office to prohibit groups from discriminating in hiring for the programs that use the federal funds.
 

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