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Invisible hands

"Invisible hands" Continued...

People from both sides of the debate have been eagerly awaiting an Obama ruling on the ability of groups that accept federal dollars to consider religious beliefs when hiring. Obama condemned the practice as discrimination on the campaign trail.

But the Obama White House has not moved on his campaign promise to bar religious organizations from considering an applicant's religious beliefs. Last month a frustrated group of 25 liberal organizations sent a letter to Obama chiding him for what they called "no progress at all" on the issue: "we are disappointed that . . . almost every aspect of the Bush Administration Faith-based initiative remains in place."

"This is a huge piece of unfinished business," said Mercer University's Gushee, "and how it gets resolved will be a big deal."

It would likely be a deal-breaker for many religious groups. If forced to follow federal hiring guidelines in exchange for federal dollars, most would likely refuse the money. "Don't force faith-based groups to not be true to their own worldview," Page said he warned White House staffers despite the council's inability to rule formally on this issue. "The government needs to stay out of the inner workings of faith-based groups."

Rabbi Saperstein also wished the council had been allowed to tackle the subject: "If consensus advice of diverse people is helpful to the administration on less contentious issues, how much more so would it be helpful in the most contentious issue?"

The council did touch on some warm-button topics: They debated whether governments should allow religious art, messages, and symbols to be displayed in rooms where faith-based groups deliver services. Here a majority of the council said the administration should not mandate but rather encourage groups to be sensitive. Thirteen out of the 25 members said the government should require houses of worship to set up a separate corporation to receive federal funds.

Still, Gushee cautions that the council's recommendations to tighten the church-state boundary line may make it less likely that religious nonprofits will seek federal funding avenues. The council called for a greater emphasis on the enforcement of church-state rules.

"Government bureaucracy might have a bit of a chilling effect on good-hearted folks who might reasonably say, 'This is something I might not want to get involved in,'" Gushee told me.

Strict interpretation of rules stating that grant funding cannot be used to pay for specific religious activities could become problematic for evangelical groups where treatment strategies are drenched in prayer and Bible study.

While President Bush's initiative strove for enhanced access to funding, Obama's version shifts the focus to programs.

There is a danger in this top-down approach in which the government decides which programs to implement, says Carlson-Thies, who served on the council's church-state task force. He worries about the government micromanaging and secularizing faith-based groups, which could see their creativity stifled as they are forced to pursue federally approved approaches.

"The danger is if the faith-based initiative becomes one of asking the groups to join in on what the federal government has already decided to do," he told me. "The federal government shouldn't just say, 'We've figured out what to do and are happy for you to join us.'"

With the council now dissolved after its one-year term, Page is anxious to see if its 168-page report will be merely placed on a shelf. Obama greeted the outgoing council members in a private March ceremony in the White House's Roosevelt Room, adding in a statement that he "looked forward" to reviewing the recommendations. But not much has come since then.

Suggesting that the faith-based office has moved into the shadows, the council's report generated little mainstream media coverage. In fact, a Pew Research Center study shows that the faith-based initiative received almost seven times as much coverage in the first six months of Bush's presidency as it did under Obama's first half year in the White House.

Time will tell if the intent of the council is merely for political photo-ops with religious leaders or if future councils will carry any meaningful authority. "That just may be a pipe dream," Page told me. "But we need that voice in D.C."

Few are sure what the next step is, beyond the White House's repeated assertions that it will keep fostering communication between religious groups. But the office continues to be burdened by a small staff handling a tremendously broad area of responsibility.

As the faith-based community awaits the naming of a new council, here is one suggestion for their marching orders: Look at social service areas where the federal government can step away because it can be done better by others. Maybe the group can examine how the federal government can support, not supplant, the role of communities.

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