Obama Executive Order Leaves In Place Many Bush-Era Policies on Faith-Based Initiatives

November 17, 2010

The White House today issued an executive order implementing some of the reforms suggested by the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  Unfortunately, the executive order ignores the concerns of church-state separation advocates who urged the President to put an end to federal funding of faith-based charities that engage in hiring discrimination on the basis of religion. 

The President’s executive order implements some positive reforms. For example, the order requires federal agencies to provide secular alternatives for people who do not want to receive social services at religious charities. The order also encourages greater transparency by requiring recipient organizations to be disclosed on government web sites.

At the same time, the executive order fails to address some of the most serious concerns raised by federal funding of sectarian religious institutions.  The order leaves in place the Bush-era policy of allowing grant recipients to engage in religiously based employment discrimination, all on the taxpayer’s dime. A conservative Christian grant recipient, for instance, is free to deny government-funded employment to gays and lesbians, non-Christians, or anyone who refuses to espouse its conservative theology. This practice is allowed under George W. Bush’s executive orders, which exempt government funded faith-based programs from the otherwise-applicable prohibition against religious discrimination in employment.

Obama’s executive order is disappointing in additional ways.  It allows public funds to go directly to houses of worship.  The order also allows publicly funded faith-based organizations to proselytize by displaying religious signage and scripture quotes in their social service facilities. 

CFI and other groups have long pressed the Administration to address the erosion of civil rights and religious liberty under Bush’s ill-advised faith-based funding scheme.  In February 2009, CFI published a position paper urging the adoption and vigorous enforcement of specific minimum safeguards in the program to protect church-state separation and religious liberty.  As its chief concern, CFI cited the Faith-Based Initiatives program’s government funding of religiously-based hiring discrimination. 

During his 2008 campaign, defenders of church-state separation were encouraged by Obama’s promise to reform Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative. In a speech in Zanesville, Ohio, Obama declared: “[I]f you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them or against the people you hire on the basis of their religion.” Many expected that the new president would roll back the Bush-era executive orders and regulations permitting government-subsidized religious discrimination in hiring.  Unfortunately, today’s executive order is indicative of the Administration’s refusal to take any clear steps in that direction.