The American Jewish Committee has issued a statement on President Obama’s unveiling of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The group likes that Obama said the office would respect the Constitution’s "mandates" on church and state, but regretted that the president did not reiterate his campaign promise that faith groups recieving funding would not be able to take religion into account when hiring. Here’s the full statement:
AJC expressed appreciation for President Obama’s commitment that the newly constituted White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will be implemented "without blurring the line our founders wisely drew between church and state."
"We welcome President Obama’s directive that the Constitution’s mandates be respected in developing the specifics of this program," said AJC Legislative Director Richard T. Foltin. "This is an essential element in developing the proper structure to build upon decades of constructive cooperation between government and faith-based social service providers."
At the same time, Foltin also voiced regret that the president, in announcing his initiative, did not explicitly reiterate his commitment of last summer that faith-based organizations receiving federal funds would not be allowed to "discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs."
While AJC has been supportive of cooperation between government and faith-based social service providers, it has expressed concerns about the initiative since it was launched in 2001 by President Bush. "We disagreed with certain principles upon which the Bush initiative was founded, not least the carte blanche it afforded to religious organizations to make hiring decisions on the basis of religion in government funded programs," said Foltin.
AJC maintains that cooperation between government and faith-based social service providers should take place in a context that both assures adequate anti-discrimination and church-state safeguards, and avoids undue interference with the religious autonomy of faith-based providers, including the ability of religious organizations to hire on the basis of religion with respect to privately-funded positions.
"We call upon President Obama to ensure that there is no discrimination in hiring by partner religious organizations for positions directly funded by the government or with respect to those who directly provide services within a publicly funded program," Foltin said.
AJC supports a White House initiative along those lines, provided government funds do not flow directly to houses of worship, such as synagogues, churches and mosques. Rather, publicly-funded services should be provided through separately incorporated religiously-affiliated organizations that clearly split their religious and secular social service activities. These religiously-affiliated organizations should not use government grants to proselytize program beneficiaries or discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of their religion.