WASHINGTON-With the possibility of former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy joining the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships' Advisory Council (see "Fifth quarter"), President Obama should have a number of people advising him who want to continue to allow faith-based groups receiving federal funds to hire based on religion.
Sojourners President Jim Wallis, former Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, and World Vision President Richard Stearns are already members of Obama's Advisory Council and support religion-based hiring. They form part of a 15-person group that will eventually number 25.
But they are outnumbered. Thursday another member of Obama's council, Melissa Rogers, the director of the Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs, spoke against the practice, voicing concerns about its constitutionality, that it violates the separation of church and state. The Obama administration, however, is doing a legal review of the practice before anything changes. The religion-based hiring policies and practices does have precedent prior to their use by President Bush-it was affirmed during the Clinton administration.
"A liberal Democratic president comes with more implicit trust," said E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, who spoke at a lunch with Rogers and others. Democrats, he explained, don't have the reputation for mingling church and state: "Even if those perceptions are unfair, they're very strong."
If the rule is changed to prohibit faith-based hiring, Rogers told me, faith-based organizations will restructure to meet federal hiring standards. If not, she said, "nonfinancial partnerships" between those organizations and the government are similarly effective in providing for those in need.
But a former member of President Bush's Faith-based Office disagreed, saying religion-based hiring is part of what makes faith-based initiatives effective. "It's held people off from being precipitous," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, now president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, explaining why Obama hasn't changed the Bush practices right away.
The council may advise the president on changes in other areas, as well. The question of what faith-based services involve is up for debate. For example, can someone giving someone else federally funded soup say, "God loves you"? No, says George Washington constitutional law professor Chip Lupu. Though that doesn't fall under proselytizing, he said, those services can impose religion in other ways.
"Programs directly funded by the government must be entirely secular in their content," he said.
But he recognizes that religious "motivation" is an important part of faith-based initiatives, and sometimes the line between motivation and service is difficult to draw.
"We don't want to create an anti-religious KGB here," said Dionne.
"'Don't ask don't tell' to a slight degree is probably going to work out OK," said Lupu.
But the Advisory Council proposes, and the president disposes-he can listen or not. So Rogers couldn't give any indication of how the office would look different under Obama than it did under Bush.