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Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Associated Press/Photo by Cliff Owen)

Losing faith

Religion | President Obama tweaks faith-based office, but not enough to satisfy frustrated Democrats

WASHINGTON-One day after President Barack Obama signed an executive order tweaking rules surrounding the federal funding of faith-based programs, Democratic lawmakers attacked the White House for not doing more.

During a House subcommittee hearing on Thursday, Democrats took turns chastising the administration, primarily over what they felt was missing in the new order: rules preventing faith-based organizations that receive federal funding from considering religious beliefs when hiring.

The incumbent Democrats took off their muzzles this first week back in Congress after suffering heavy losses in the House during the recent midterm election.

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Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said he and many of his colleagues "remain frustrated by the glacial pace of any reforms." He added, "On the matter of ending employment discrimination in federally funded programs, about which the president was so eloquent in 2008, we have heard nothing."

But the Obama administration's refusal so far to handcuff religious organizations when it comes to hiring practices should be viewed with relief from both the faith-based charities and the people they serve.

"The government should not use the power of the purse to bribe or coerce these religious providers into surrendering their religious mission," Douglas Laycock, a constitutional law scholar from the University of Virginia, argued at the hearing.

Losing this fundamental right for equal treatment when it comes to hiring would likely drive many religious groups, such as World Vision, away from receiving federal dollars. And forcing such groups to compromise their core values would ultimately leave the needy with fewer options for relief.

That is why many religious groups breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday after Obama signed the order amending the faith-based initiative program. By not imposing hiring restrictions on faith-based groups, the administration refrained from lobbing a grenade on the government's entire faith-based partnership.

"The most important thing to note about the amended [order] is how few changes it makes," wrote Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the watchdog Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. "The principles it sets out are refinements, not alternatives, to the principles of the [President George W.] Bush [order]."

Obama's clarifications include reassuring faith-based groups that they do not have to remove or cover-up religious items in the facilities where the federally funded services are provided. Such groups can also keep religious names and select board members based on shared religious beliefs.

The order affirms that faith-based groups receiving federal money can still provide religious activities that are privately funded and voluntary. It also guarantees that an individual who refuses services from a faith-base provider will receive referrals to alternative providers.

Most of the revisions in the order are based on recommendations submitted last March by the bipartisan and interfaith President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (See "Invisible hands," WORLD, April 24, 2010.)

In a crucial omission, the new order does not demand that faith-based groups keep their federally funded programs separate from the rest of the organization. This practice of establishing separate non-profit entities that deal solely with the federal dollars would have been costly and burdensome to most groups.

But its silence on hiring practices, while a victory for conservatives, clearly consternated the gathering of Democrats at Thursday's hearing.

With Congress' post-election, lame duck session leaving little time for any real action, the hearing seemed to function as little more than political theater: It provided lawmakers from the left a forum to give the White House a wrist slap. This perhaps signals that disaffected liberal lawmakers, whose pre-election patience may have run out on the White House, could become some of Obama's loudest critics in the next Congress.

Democrats attending the hearing also scolded the White House for not bothering to send someone to testify about the new order.

"They ought to get someone over here right away," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. "This is no way for us to try and do business."

Despite making campaign promises in 2008 to end the ability of faith-based groups to consider shared beliefs when hiring, Obama has not tread into this murky waters as president. His administration even removed from the table discussions about this policy during the bipartisan council's deliberations last spring. Administration officials continue to say that religious hiring practices are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

That did not seem to be good enough for Democrats at Thursday's hearing. But Republicans, who will soon be in control of the House, promised at the same hearing that restricting religious hiring practices will not occur on their watch.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said he does not want to create an environment where "anything within the shadow of the American flag cannot be religious."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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