The president outlined the plan for the new office at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, emphasizing his intention to treat religious and secular groups fairly and to preserve church-state separation laws that critics of the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives felt were blurred in the past eight years.
“The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups,” Obama said at the breakfast. “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.”
On the campaign trail last July, Mr. Obama criticized President George W. Bush’s management of faith-based programming, saying it “never fulfilled its promise.” He vowed to shift the funding emphasis from promoting partisan interests to focusing on more social services for the poor through religious and secular organizations.
The Obama administration now faces questions about how it will reconcile the concerns and agendas of the diverse religious and secular groups involved in the council. Many religious groups are waiting to see if President Obama will follow through on his campaign promise to prevent religion-based hiring for federally-funded positions within their organizations.
Under President Bush, religious groups receiving taxpayers’ dollars were allowed to exclusively hire those of the same faith, a practice that civil liberties organizations said was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
President Obama has not detailed how he will handle the hiring issue, but the executive order he signed Thursday provides for collaboration between the office’s director, White House lawyers and the attorney general for advice on “difficult legal and constitutional issues.” The president has said that religious groups will have to follow state or local laws that prohibit hiring on the basis of sexual orientation for federally funded positions.
Religious groups that believe homosexuality is a sin are anxious about the decision. “Even though I agree with President Obama that we need to protect the civil liberties of all Americans, there is a religious exemption clause that needs to be respected,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “I think he understands that he would alienate many of these communities by attempting to require that faith-based organizations who want to receive federal funds must modify their hiring practices to include gay, lesbian and transgender people,” he said.
Last week, President Obama picked Pentecostal minister Joshua DuBois, 26, to direct the new White House office, which has a newly-appointed advisory council of leaders from a diverse cross-section of religious and secular social services groups.
Mr. Obama hired DuBois in 2005 to direct a religious outreach program in his former Senate office. Prior to that, DuBois earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University and was an associate pastor at a small Massachusetts Pentecostal church.
DuBois also led the Obama-Biden campaign’s religious outreach efforts, which included organizing nearly 1,000 house parties and conversations with faith leaders and posting blog entries highlighting Mr. Obama’s faith-based policies.
Throughout the campaign, DuBois emphasized Obama’s work as a Chicago community organizer, using that experience to create a link between the candidate and religious and community groups.
Religious leaders across denominations welcomed the news of DuBois’ appointment.
“He’s a consensus builder, which is important on such complex issues,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a member of the White House’s new advisory council. “He’s won the trust of an impressive array of religious and political leaders.”
“Personally, I think it’s a really good choice,” said Stephen Schneck, a politics professor who directs Catholic University’s Life Cycle Institute. “Everyone is looking forward to the sort of vigor that he may bring to the position — it’s the kind of position that a young person could make something happen with.”
But other leaders of faith-based and community organizations have some reservations about DuBois’ youth and his lack of demonstrated skills managing a large-scale government program. “I have been hearing some people raise questions privately about his experience,” said Kim Lawton, managing editor of PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.
The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s Rodriguez calls DuBois the “best choice” to head the office and says that Mr. Obama’s history as a community organizer lends him a greater legitimacy in developing the new council. Other groups are waiting to see how the president will handle issues like abortion.
Catholic University’s Stephen Schneck says President Obama’s decision to reverse the Mexico City Policy, which prohibited non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to promote or perform abortions abroad, has made many Catholic bishops uneasy. But some Catholics and other pro-life groups are hopeful that the administration will follow up on its pledges to emphasize abortion reduction, Schneck said.
“I think we’re all still waiting to see, because it’s too early to tell,” he said.