Many of you have probably received this already, but I’m reposting here for ease of access.
One year ago today, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a council of advisors who would examine ways to reform the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (created under President Bush as the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives). One of the goals of this council was to reform the office to ensure that its practices reinstated a strong separation of church and state.
One year later, the council is now preparing to release its suggestions to President Obama. Unfortunately, there are some serious deficiencies in the council’s recommendations that could allow for continued direct federal, state, and local government funding of religious activities and proselytization. This is unacceptable. As a result, we have written a letter to President Obama detailing each of the potential loopholes that must be closed in order to restore the separation of church and state that the Bush administration’s faith-based programs so egregiously violated for eight years. The text of that letter is as follows:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Via Fax 202 456-2461
February 5th, 2010
Dear Mr. President:
The Center for Inquiry, the largest organization representing nonreligious Americans, is committed to the separation of church and state that is mandated by our First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Only by respecting the Constitution can the freedom of conscience of all Americans, religious and nonreligious, be protected and preserved. We write to you today to express our concern about certain aspects of the government’s support of religious (“faith-based”) organizations.
One year ago, you issued an executive order establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, including an Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The promise of the new Office and the Advisory Council was that serious flaws in the Bush Administration’s Faith-Based Initiative would be corrected. Specifically, new regulations would be implemented to ensure faith-based programs would be administered consistent with the Constitution.
This promise has not been met. Most aspects of the Bush Administration’s program remain untouched. Moreover, although it was encouraging that the Advisory Council created a Reform of the Office Taskforce to examine church-state issues, based on the preliminary recommendations of this taskforce that have been released to the public, we fear that the taskforce’s final report will omit key reforms necessary to ensure that faith-based programs comply with the demands of the Establishment Clause. We would like to detail some of the reforms that we believe are necessary.
We believe that religious organizations receiving any form of direct federal aid should not be allowed to use those funds to proselytize, and that all government money should be used only for secular programs. We were extremely relieved when you campaigned on that promise, and we hope that you will deliver on it as soon as possible. However, the fact remains that the current policy of your administration is no different than that of your predecessor: allowing religious organizations to take government money and use it—directly or indirectly—to proselytize. We understand that the Advisory Council is discussing ways to correct this problem, but also realize that there appear to be no imminent regulatory changes targeted at correcting this issue. While we unequivocally support the right of religious organizations to express their beliefs, they should not be permitted to do so with taxpayer money.
In particular, religious organizations using federal funding to provide secular services should not be allowed to offer those services in areas where religious iconography such as crosses, scripture, or overtly religious art are present. While your Advisory Council has vigorously debated the issue and come to no clear consensus, it is self-evident that even the passive presence of religious materials in rooms where a government funded service is being offered represents an explicit violation of the Establishment Clause and amounts to a form of proselytization by proxy. We urge you to reject the unsupported claim that it is too burdensome to force religious organizations to offer publicly funded services only in rooms that contain no religious iconography. Not only is there no empirical support for this speculation, but the dictates of the Constitution must take precedence. Taxpayer dollars should not be used to endorse in any way a particular religious ideology.
The Center for Inquiry is also disappointed that the White House has not yet done anything to ban religious organizations that receive federal dollars from discriminating against employees and volunteers on the basis of religion. Although you promised to end this practice during your campaign, this campaign promise has not yet been met. We note that your administration has not issued an executive order restoring the federal ban on employment discrimination in publicly funded programs that was eliminated under the previous administration. Additionally, your Department of Justice has not repealed the June 29, 2007 Office of Legal Counsel Memorandum that—under the guise of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993—allows religious organizations to use discriminatory hiring practices even under conditions where the statute authorizing federal funding explicitly prohibits such discrimination. If a faith-based organization is delivering secular social services—which is the justification for supporting them with federal tax dollars—there is no justification whatsoever for using a religious test for employees or volunteers. No American should be required to support religious discrimination as part of their tax burden.
Additionally, religious organizations that do receive federal dollars for secular activities should be required, at a minimum, to incorporate a separate 501(c)(3) organization in order to receive funding. Some claim that this would put an undue burden on religious groups and make it impossible for smaller groups to gain equal access to public money, but in reality it is not difficult to set up a 501(c)(3) organization, and many small groups across the country do so with or without the aid of an attorney. (We would agree that it may be desirable to streamline the application process for 501(c)(3) status for all, not just those doing so in order to administer social welfare programs.) We maintain it is extremely important that this separate organization exist in order to help ensure that federal funds are being used solely for secular services and to protect the religious institution from unnecessary government intrusion and auditing. Therefore, we urge you to include this requirement as part of your reform of the faith-based office.
Lastly, we are troubled by the lack of engagement of secular organizations by your Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. One of the goals of the Office is to partner with neighborhood groups in order to offer vital social services to communities that do not always have them, and while it is true that some religious organizations offer a possible means to this end, it is also true that many secular organizations can do the same. Therefore, we encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity to involve nonreligious organizations in these partnerships. We think you will find them able and willing partners. We call to your attention the concern that some secular organizations may have closed their doors during the last administration due to lack of funding and ask you to make an effort to reestablish these secular groups. There need to be viable and available secular alternatives for beneficiaries.
On July 1st, 2008, you gave a campaign speech in Zanesville, Ohio in which you asserted, “as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state.” Mr. President, now is the time to act upon that belief. Please keep your promise to the American people and restore the proper separation of church and state by correcting these serious deficiencies within the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The Center for Inquiry urges you to implement critical civil rights protections and vital religious freedom safeguards to ensure the constitutionality of your administration’s faith-based programs.
Thank you for your consideration.
Ronald A. Lindsay
President and CEO
Toni Van Pelt
Vice President and Director of Public Policy
In order to bring as much attention as possible to this issue, we encourage you to write your own letter to the President reminding him why separation of church and state is so important. Feel free to use portions of our letter in your own, or to compose an entirely new one. Let’s make sure that President Obama knows that there is a strong secular community who will not sit by and allow continued gross violations of the separation of church and state and the first amendment. You can write to the White House at:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Via Fax 202 456-2461
Be sure to include a return address and email in your letter.
Thank you for your continued support.