By Michelle Boorstein and Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post Staff Writers Friday, February 6, 2009 - President Obama yesterday announced the creation of his faith-based outreach office, expanding its agenda beyond funding social programs to work on policies aimed at strengthening family life and reducing abortion.
Obama's office leaves in place rules that allow faith-based groups receiving federal funding to hire only people of their own faith, but White House aides said the hiring rules would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis when there are complaints and that the Justice Department will provide legal assistance.
Obama's move more fully formalizes the partnerships between the federal government and faith groups that first began under President Bill Clinton and was expanded by President George W. Bush. But where Bush used the faith office primarily for funding programs -- drawing criticism that he was mainly assisting his political supporters -- Obama said he wants to use the office for policy guidance, as well.
Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Hilton Washington yesterday, Obama said the goal of the initiative "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 our Founders wisely drew between church and state."
The president created a 25-member advisory council and named 15 of its members yesterday, including several high-profile evangelicals -- the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of a Florida megachurch, and the Rev. Frank S. Page, president emeritus of the Southern Baptist Convention -- as well as representatives from secular nonprofits, which largely had little association with Bush's faith-based initiative. The council members are to advise the faith office on policy but will not play a direct role in allocating federal grants. The office will be headed by Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal who worked on religious issues for Obama's campaign.
The office will be more involved in policy planning than it was during the Bush years, White House aides said. They said the top priorities for the office will be interfaith relations, strengthening the role of fathers in society and reducing poverty. The office also will help develop policies aimed at reducing the number of abortions, though no specifics were offered.
Obama kept in place, however, much of the legal structure for the office created through executive orders by Bush. The 11 faith-based offices Bush established in different agencies and a faith liaison in the public outreach office will continue. Paul Monteiro will be the religious liaison in the Office of Public Liaison, the White House said yesterday.
DuBois said the faith-based office will employ about 50 people. Despite speaking on the campaign trail against the Bush administration's approach -- including on hiring and proselytizing -- Obama wants "to create a process to look at this in a way that can withstand scrutiny and takes into account views on all sides," DuBois said in an interview yesterday.
Three members of the advisory council -- Page, the Rev. Jim Wallis and World Vision President Richard Stearns -- have heightened concerns among church-state separatists. The Southern Baptist Convention, which Page led, says that it is discriminatory for the government to prevent its members from sharing their faith with others. And Stearns's organization received funding in the Bush years while saying it should not be forced to hire non-Christians.
Faith-based nonprofits received federal grants totaling more than $10.6 billion during the Bush administration, said members of the former White House staff.
Some religious groups argued at the time that they could use taxpayer-funded program to help people out of poverty and addiction by teaching them about God and salvation. And yesterday, some advocates of church-state separation said Obama should not have left the Bush legal structure in place.
"He is expanding the Bush administration's faith-based initiative without putting the most important safeguards in place. The president has created a more powerful office with a greater ability to shovel federal taxpayer dollars to religious groups, but civil rights protections are being deferred for later study and decisions," said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ira C. Lupu, a George Washington University law professor who has written on White House faith-based initiatives, said it was wise for Obama not to move too fast. As a candidate, Obama "hadn't looked at the issue carefully," Lupu said. "I think as a first move, handing it to lawyers is good. But it doesn't avoid that he'll have to deal with this eventually."
Staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon contributed to this report.