Barack Obama said during the campaign that he wanted to keep George W. Bush’s faith-based office around but revamp it. Among the examples of the changes — the new Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships invited the press to its first briefing for religious and community leaders.
A handful of religion reporters were able to sit in on the two-hour session Monday afternoon at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for many of the members of the office’s new 25-person Advisory Council, as well as other religious and community activists and even some church-state separation advocates.
Much more important than media access were the contrasts Joshua DuBois, executive director of the office, drew between the new office and its function over the previous eight years.
DuBois 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. Much of Monday’s meeting consisted of Obama administration officials who work in areas such as education policy, urban affairs and combating poverty outlining the president’s goals in those areas and appealing for ideas from the leaders on, among other things, the kinds of programs that work in their communities.
DuBois said strengthening the "legal and constitutional footing" and drawing "appropriate legal lines" for faith groups receiving government dollars also were a priority and another way the office would differ from the Bush administration’s faith-based operations. He did not go into specifics on legal issues but told the group he wanted to "work with you all on that process."
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.
DuBois also noted that despite beliefs to the contrary by many he had met during the presidential campaign, the faith-based office does not distribute grant money. He did say the office could provide "technical assistance" to groups who were interested in applying for such grants from government agencies.
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.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, praised the “level of communication and effort at dialogue,” adding that the administration needs “these groups to be effective” and to “work through these groups.”
Diament, Saperstein and National Council of Jewish Women President Nancy Ratzan, who also attended the session, all have been named to the office’s Advisory Council. Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the group’s Washington director, Hadar Susskind, also attended the briefing.
Even the Rev. Barry Lynn from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, another meeting attendee, said he was happy that DuBois had emphasized strengthening the "legal and constitutional" footing of the office and liked the inclusivity of the meeting, which included everyone from an evangelical Christian minister to church-state separationists such as Lynn and a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union. As for the idea of having religious leaders sitting on an advisory council in a secular democracy, Lynn said "red flags go up," but "we’ll see" how it develops.
The gathering, sans media, continued all day Tuesday and included an appearance from Melody Barnes, the head of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.