Secularists Should Welcome Church-State Expert As New Head of Faith-Based Office

March 13, 2013

In a move that should draw praise from secularists, the White House confirmed today that it would appoint Melissa Rogers as the new director of the federal Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Rogers will replace Joshua DuBois, who stepped down last month. 

For those who do not know Rogers, she is widely respected expert on First Amendment law and the relationship between religion and politics. Most recently she worked as a nonresident senior fellow with Governance Studies at Brookings and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School. Formerly she was executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

You can read more about Rogers here.

As some of my colleagues in the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination have already noted, the White House has made a wise choice with Rogers -- one that marks a significant and applaudable administrative shift. The previous director of the faith-based office, Joshua DuBois, was a Pentecostal minister and Obama advisor who regularly downplayed or ignored the concerns of church-state advocates. Rogers, on the other hand, is a lawyer who thoroughly understands and respects the principle of separation of church and state (by the way, she is also a practicing Baptist). 

In fact, Rogers previously served as chair of President Barack Obama's inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a diverse group tasked with with making recommendations to the administration on how to improve the function and constitutionality of partnerships between the government and private groups. Under Rogers' leadership, the Council released a report recommending several important reforms which were included by Obama in Executive Order 13559 and welcomed by church-advocates. One of her tasks as director will be to ensure the full implementation of those reforms

Unfortunately, despite continued pressure from the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination and the general public, Obama has not enacted another important reform he promised to make while campaigning in 2008: close a harmful loophole that allows groups that receive federal funds through the program to discriminate in hiring. Yet I can think of few people who would be better to work with in trying to change that than Melissa Rogers. 

So, welcome aboard, Ms. Rogers, and thank you, Mr. President, for appointing someone to head the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships who respects the idea of secular government. It is a breath of fresh air.