February 6, 2009
White House Faith Office to Expand
By JEFF ZELENY and LAURIE GOODSTEIN
WASHINGTON — President Obama signed an executive order Thursday to create a revamped White House office for religion-based and neighborhood programs, expanding an initiative started by the Bush administration that provides government support — and financing — to religious and charitable organizations that deliver social services.
“No matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone,” Mr. Obama said. “There is a force for good greater than government.”
In announcing the expansion of the religion office, Mr. Obama did not settle the biggest question: Can religious groups that receive federal money for social service programs hire only those who share their faith?
The Bush administration said yes. But many religious groups and others that are concerned about employment discrimination and protecting the separation of church and state had pushed hard for Mr. Obama to repeal the Bush policies.
Meanwhile, other religious groups were lobbying to preserve their right to use religion as a criterion in hiring. Some religious social service providers warned they might stop working with the government if they were forced to change policies.
Instead of deciding the issue, the president called Thursday for a legal review of the policy case by case before determining whether religious groups can receive government money and selectively hire employees based on their religious beliefs.
Mr. Obama told an audience in Ohio last summer, “You can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them.”
Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister who led religious outreach for Mr. Obama during the presidential race, will direct the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Mr. DuBois said in an interview, “The president is still very much committed to clear constitutionality and legality in this program. He’s committed to nondiscrimination.”
But Mr. DuBois said that after Mr. Obama gave his speech in Ohio “we have realized there’s a tremendous lack of clarity in this area, so we’ll review on a case by case basis.”
“If we are consistently finding the same thing, and presenting the same recommendations to the president,” he said, then the administration might seek to recommend a change in the law.
Asked whether his office would work with religious groups outside the mainstream, like the Church of Scientology, that may seek government grants for social services, Mr. DuBois said: “There’s no picking or choosing or cherry-picking of groups. That was allowed before, but it will not be the practice moving forward.”
The president also announced the formation of a 25-member advisory council that includes religious leaders and heads of nonprofit groups, among them, several evangelical Christians, the president of Catholic Charities U.S.A., a rabbi, a Muslim community organizer and the openly gay director of a nonprofit group.
Mr. Obama, who spoke about his Christian faith frequently during his presidential campaign, said Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast that religion should not be “wielded as a tool to divide us from one another.”
He called on believers of all faiths to set aside divisions “to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.”
“No matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate,” Mr. Obama told an audience of Republicans and Democrats, diplomats and members of the clergy. “There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.”
Mr. Obama signed the executive order on Thursday away from the view of television cameras or an audience.
Jeff Zeleny reported from Washington, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.