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Obama Faith Council

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: As the economy continued to collapse this past week, there was sharp debate in Washington over the size and content of a stimulus package. Meanwhile, two of President Obama’s nominees for top jobs bowed out because of their failure to pay some taxes.

With all that controversy, no wonder the president urged reconciliation at the National Prayer Breakfast, as Kim Lawton reports.

KIM LAWTON: At the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Thursday (February 5), President Obama returned to a theme he’s frequently repeated. He said while faith is all too often a point of controversy and division, it can also be a force for unity and healing:

President BARACK OBAMA (speaking at National Prayer Breakfast): I do believe if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, and if perhaps we allow God’s grace to enter into that space that lies between us, then the old rifts will start to mend; new partnerships will begin to emerge.

LAWTON: Obama officially announced his renamed and expanded Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which he said will work on a variety of social issues to help achieve the common good.

President OBAMA: The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state.

LAWTON: The office will be headed by Joshua DuBois, the 26-year-old Pentecostal minister who led religious outreach for Obama’s presidential campaign. Part of his responsibilities will be organizing a diverse 25-member council of prominent religious and secular leaders to advise the president. Obama signed the executive order establishing the new office at a private White House meeting Thursday attended by several of the new council members.

There was much more fanfare when Obama signed a new law expanding government health insurance for low-income children. Faith groups across the spectrum had lobbied for the law, and many religious leaders attended the large East Room signing ceremony. President George W. Bush twice vetoed similar measures.

ABERNETHY: And Kim, the faith-based office is now supposed to do more than it did under President Bush?

LAWTON: President Obama is a former community organizer himself, and he believes, he says, that faith-based groups and neighborhood groups are very well situated to deal with a whole host of problems, and so he set up this advisory council, and this office will not just funnel federal money to these faith-based groups, but they’ll give him advice on policy development, so on the issue of poverty reduction, AIDS in Africa, reducing the number of abortions, even interfaith dialogue — all of those issues will be under this office.

ABERNETHY: What about the question of hiring? Can a faith-based organization, if it wants to, continue to discriminate in hiring and hire only those people that believe the same things it does?

LAWTON: Well, that’s the big controversy, and that’s going to be argued out over the next few weeks. President Obama’s administration is getting a lot of pressure from civil rights groups and strict church-state separationists to change this policy. Federal law says that religious groups can discriminate, you know, only hire people who believe like they do. But it’s unclear if they take federal money what should happen, and a lot of groups say that, you know, it violates the separation of church and state. However, the religious groups say that they need to be able to maintain their distinct religious identity, and they should only hire people who agree like they do. So, for example, on the issue of homosexuality, some of these religious groups don’t want to be forced to hire gays and lesbians because they disagree with homosexuality.

ABERNETHY: There are a lot of clergy people on this new council. Is there a danger that they could be co-opted — that their closeness to the president could make them unable anymore to speak truth to power?

LAWTON: Well, some people have raised that. Will they still be “prophetic,” you know? But the people I’ve been speaking with say that they see this as an opportunity to have a positive influence and to get religious values into the mix of the conversations. They say that this position will not prevent them from speaking out if they see something they don’t agree with.

ABERNETHY: Kim Lawton, many thanks.