Faith-Based Groups Seek Clues To Obama Administration Plan

November 11, 2008

Pointing to his spiritually-laced campaign rhetoric and outreach to religious groups, liberal faith-based organizations have high expectations that President-elect Barack Obama will increase funding for their activities and warmly welcome their lobbying on poverty, climate change and other issues.

But analysts across the ideological spectrum said that much of what the
Obama administration might propose for faith-based organizations is
unclear and that the new president could face legal challenges about
whether religious groups can discriminate against gay people and those
of religions other than their own in hiring.

Liberal faith groups among Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants and
progressive evangelicals have felt left out of efforts by President
Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives over the past
eight years and are looking forward to more attention from Obama.

Still, some activists close to Obama say they expect him to seek
cooperation from conservative Christian groups, some of which were
highly critical of him during the campaign.

“The question is whether white evangelicals, 70 million of them, three-quarters of whom voted for McCain,
whether a significant percentage will be willing to cooperate with him
on anything,” said David Gushee, a well-known evangelical Christian
ethicist who heads the group Evangelicals for Human Rights.

Those who do, some analysts said, might risk being tagged as too willing to compromise their beliefs.

Obama raised concerns among some of his supporters this summer when
he announced that he would expand Bush’s faith-based initiative. That
effort helped religious groups compete for federal grants for social
service work, but some critics have said it allows government
sponsorship of religion. Other critics accused Bush of using the
initiative to reward his conservative religious supporters.

Bush issued an executive order allowing groups to receive federal
funding even if they hired only people of their own religion. Critics
of that move said it allows groups to discriminate and still be
rewarded with taxpayers’ money.

Obama said this summer that he would not allow religious groups to
get federal funding if they discriminate in hiring. But evangelicals
close to the Obama team say they are getting signals that the door
might still be open to changes. Being required to hire non-Christians
would be a deal-breaker even for progressive evangelicals, they say.

“Christian influence is felt not only in direct proselytizing, but
in strategies and characters and values of people implementing them,”
Gushee said. “We think the identity of Christian institutions must be
protected, and the main way you do that is by who you hire. So if a
condition for getting money is limits on who you hire, most
organizations won’t play ball.”

Beyond hiring is the much larger issue of how engaged Obama will be
on faith-based programs. Activists are eager to find out who might lead
the administration’s efforts and whether funding will expand or even
continue at current levels given the economy.

Many say Obama’s campaign’s faith outreach, unprecedented for a
Democrat, shows his commitment. But others say his track record is less
clear. Jim Towey, a Democrat who directed the Bush faith-based office
from 2002 to 2006, said Obama as senator “was not involved at all” in
the initiative, in contrast with other Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Although Bush’s creation of the office and the partisan infighting over
it has created a public perception of faith-based outreach and funding
as a conservative effort, Towey says, Democrats were always more
interested in the idea. Federal support for the program was first put
in place by President Bill Clinton in the 1996 welfare reform act.

“Two-thirds of the country’s governors have faith-based offices, and
they’re mostly Democrats. There’s plenty of room for a Democratic
president to succeed with this, so long as he focuses on the poor and
how they’re best served,” Towey said. But “if he bogs down on fights on
religious hiring, it will be a mess.”

Beyond faith-based initiatives, church-state experts said battles
over same-sex marriage are likely in the new president’s first term.

Several analysts said a standoff over the religious rights of business
owners who don’t wish to rent their restaurant or meeting place to a
same-sex couple holding a wedding is an example of a dispute that might
soon flare. The president-elect supports the Employment
Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against
employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

“The marriage wars will be fought for generations if we don’t carve
out a religious exception,” said Seamus Hasson, president of the Becket
Fund law firm and author of “The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture
War Over Religion in America.”

Church-state experts also note Obama’s support of the Freedom of
Choice Act, which would expand protections for abortion rights.
Pursuing that would trigger a showdown, they say, over whether
religious doctors, pharmacists and universities, among others, have a
right to an exception.

“Are there issues about which we have serious disagreements? We know so,” Richard Cizik,
a prominent evangelical lobbyist, said during a post-election
conference call organized by the progressive group Faith in Public
Life. “But President-elect Obama has said he is interested in finding
common ground. And, increasingly, evangelicals are that mentality, and
that will make all the difference.”

Source: Washington Post

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