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Legal questions as Obama overhauls faith-based effort

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President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Feb. 5. (CNS photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- President Obama unveiled a revamped White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships on Thursday (Feb. 5), but postponed a decision on whether religious groups can discriminate in hiring, an issue that has bedeviled similar government projects.

“The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups,” Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, where he announced the new office.

“It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state.”

Obama has said his project will be a new and improved version of former President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which was created in 2001. Like Bush, Obama created his faith-based office by executive order.

In the same order, Obama created a new President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, comprised of 25 leaders of religious and community organizations, including Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, and Arturo Chavez, president of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, formerly known as the Mexican American Cultural Center.

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Leading the White House office will be Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal pastor who headed religious outreach for Obama’s presidential campaign.

“Joshua understands the issues at stake,” Obama said in a statement, “knows the people involved, and will be able to bring everyone together -- from both the secular and faith-based communities, from academia and politics -- around our common goals.”

Chavez told Catholic News Service that his background in community organizing before he joined the Mexican American Cultural Center was a factor in his invitation to join the advisory committee.

Obama said the office’s top priority will be “making community groups an integral part of our economic recovery” and relieving poverty. The office will also address teenage pregnancy, abortion reduction, and “support fathers who stand by their families,” especially young men.

“There is a force for good greater than government,” Obama said in the statement. “It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose greater than our own, that reveals itself not just in places of worship but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals...”

In a shift from the Bush administration, the office will play a role in foreign policy, the White House said, working with the National Security Council to encourage interfaith dialogue.

Thursday’s announcement fulfills a campaign pledge Obama made in July to expand and upgrade Bush’s faith-based office, which Obama had criticized as an under-funded “photo-op.”

For the most part, religious leaders across the theological spectrum praised the announcement. But the new president has already backed away from one campaign promise, according to some scholars and activists.

In July, Obama said that religious groups will not be able to use federal grants to proselytize or to hire only members of their own faith. The issue presents a unique challenge for the president, who boasts a background in community organizing and constitutional law. Religious groups say hiring co-religionists is essential to their identity and mission; others argue that federal funds should not be used to discriminate.

The executive order Obama signed Thursday avoids a clear statement on hiring practices, instead saying that the office may “seek the opinion of the Attorney General on any constitutional and statutory questions.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, a member of the new advisory council and director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said “the hiring issue is going to be dealt with by Josh (DuBois), the White House counsel and the attorney general’s office.”

“I think it’s wise to kick it over to the lawyers,” said Mark Silk, an expert on religion and politics at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “It’s very complicated, but there’s no question it’s a walking back on his campaign position.”

Church-state watchdogs are already howling over the lack of clear hiring guidelines and the new faith-tinged advisory panel.

“President Obama launched his faith-based initiative today by heading into uncharted and dangerous waters,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion -- or religious leaders meddling in federal policy -- through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president’s chosen religious leaders.”

Of the 15 people named to the advisory council on Thursday, several are evangelicals, including the Rev. Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners; Frank Page, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and megachurch Pastor Joel C. Hunter of Lakeland, Fla.

The panel also includes Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. Council members are appointed for one-year terms.

As he waited for a flight back to San Antonio after the private ceremony where the executive order was signed, Chavez said the council priority closest to his heart would be helping poor youths and young adults.

"We need to reach young people with meaningful access to education and jobs," he said.

Even assistance as basic as helping parents more effectively maneuver the educational system can make a dramatic difference in communities like those where he worked as an organizer, he said.

Snyder, also reached by CNS on his way to the airport after the White House event, commented on the mandate for the faith-based office to work with the National Security Council to foster interfaith dialogue. He said it is an acknowledgment that better understanding of the religious motivations of the players in global problems "can only increase our national security."

He said in meeting with the first 15 people named to the council Feb. 5, Obama laid out his philosophies about the faith community's role in the work of government.

Snyder said that in the Bush administration's approach to faith-based programs "what we had was an ally, an advocate" in easing the path for organizations such as Catholic Charities to work with the federal government.

Regarding Obama's approach, he said that "by establishing this council it seems to bring it to the next level," where advice and guidance from people with expertise in working with the poor, for example, are being actively sought by the administration.

The new council's structure and ways it will function were still being worked out, said Father Snyder. The executive order calls for it to have a total of 25 members who will serve one-year terms, which can be renewed.

(Patricia Zapor Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)

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