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Obama and DuBois: Mike Theiler/EPA/Newscom

Faith-based farce

Office meant to strengthen religious charities, says its former director, has become 'a political outreach shop' under Obama

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

WASHINGTON-Jim Towey spent more than four years as the Director of the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush. With controversy often surrounding the office, Towey was surprised when Barack Obama decided to keep it open after becoming president.

"I thought he deserved credit because I knew that the liberal flank of his party wanted it closed," said Towey during a recent return to Washington, D.C., from his current post as president of Ave Maria University in Florida.

Three years later Towey is appalled at the direction the office has taken under Obama. "I think it has become a faith-based farce," Towey said. "The office has become nothing but a political outreach shop that has led the charge to trample on the religious rights of faith-based organizations."

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The Catholic Ave Maria University is suing the federal government over its recent push to force certain religious employers to include contraceptives and abortifacients in their health plans even if it goes against that group's beliefs. Towey said the regulation is just the most recent example of the Obama administration's use of the faith-based office for federal overreach.

In September 2010, the White House used the office to convince religious leaders to promote the new healthcare law. During an Oval Office conference call, Obama pleaded with faith-based organizations to "get out there and spread the word" about the law. Joshua DuBois, Obama's director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Partnerships, also got on the call, according to media accounts, telling the religious leaders to "make use of the resources we've described on this call: the website, door hangers, one pagers and so forth. We've got work to do."

DuBois met with leaders of the religious left about healthcare during the legislative debate over the reform bill, and he spoke at an interfaith healthcare rally in June 2009. "If that is all this office is doing, that is standard partisan political posturing," Towey said. "Why are taxpayer funds supporting community organizing?"

Towey said that, instead of conference calls and rallies, the first three years of the office under Bush featured the creation of new programs such as the $30 million Compassion Capital Fund designed to help faith-based groups get technical assistance. The office also started initiatives to mentor children of prisoners, to increase access to recovery drug treatment programs for addicts, and to promote charitable giving incentives.

"President Bush had a faith-based initiative in every state of the union," Towey said. While the media closely scrutinized the faith-based office under Bush, the press seems to largely ignore the office's activities under Obama, according to Towey.

Last October the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) refused to renew a $2.5 million grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its programs for human trafficking victims. The HHS funding announcement stated it would give preference to programs that offered the full range of care, which to the Catholic bishops meant groups that provided contraception, sterilization, and abortion services.

"Can you imagine the uproar that would have taken place if we had done that under President Bush by pulling a Planned Parenthood grant?" said Towey, a former director of Florida's health and human services agency under Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Towey accuses Obama of "unleashing the armies of contraception to replace George Bush's armies of compassion." He fears that Obama, if reelected, will move to end the religious hiring protections of faith-based groups receiving federal funds: "The precedent is being set that the church is subordinate to what the government says it is. So you are allowed to have a certain range of beliefs as long as government says you can, and that is not the America that I grew up in.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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