OPP Attends Conference on Obama Faith-Based Program

February 19, 2010

On February 18th 2010, representatives from the Office of Public Policy attended an all-day forum at the Brookings Institution titled “Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama Era: Assessing the First Year and Looking Ahead.” The purpose of this forum was to analyze the ways in which the Obama administration has changed the Bush era Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into its own Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Many distinguish guests were in attendance, including Joshua DuBois, special advisor to President Obama and head of the faith-based office and Melissa Rogers, the chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships which has been charged with reforming the faith-based office.

DuBois kicked off the forum with opening remarks and was extremely inclusive of all the varying viewpoints in the room. He began by acknowledging the perception among many individuals—especially church state separationists—that the faith-based office is a giant “pot of money” that religious organizations can draw federal funding from. He went out of his way to stress that while this may have been the case in the previous administration, the Obama administration is attempting to re-focus the office on outreach, attempting to bring together organizations around common goals, such as poverty reduction, hunger alleviation, the elimination of teen pregnancy, student mentoring, relief for Haiti, etc. He noted that some of these goals can be met through government funding of secular social service programs but also made the point that much of it requires communication and outreach between government and organizations, amongst organizations, and between organizations and the public. Several times during his remarks, DuBois stressed the “constitutional commitments” that his office faces, and that adherence to those commitments requires the close attention from those both inside and outside government. Perhaps the most promising part of his remarks came when he stated that the Administration “will follow the recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council as much as is legally and practically possible.” This statement seemed to indicate that the administration will follow the vote of the council in requiring religious organizations that wish to be considered for federal funding to incorporate a separate 501(c)(3) organization.

Among the panels that took place during the day was one on the state of the law regarding church state separation and the funding of faith-based organizations by the government. Much of this panel recounted the history of Charitable Choice, the creation of the Faith-Based Office, and legal challenges that have arisen during the past ten years. The panelists discussing these issues were Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, Dan Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Steve McFarland, Vice President and CLO of World Vision, and Bob Tuttle, a Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School. The most discussed (and most divisive) issue for the panelists was that of discrimination in hiring by religious organizations that received federal funds. While all panelists supported Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that allows religious organizations to discriminate against those they hire on a religious basis, the panel was sharply divided over whether or not an organization that received federal funds should be allowed to do the same. Steve McFarland was by far the most outspoken individual in favor of retaining the language in the civil rights act, believing that forcing religious organizations to comply with non-discriminatory practices violates the free-exercise clause, while Dan Mach took the opposing viewpoint; believing that religious organizations should not be allowed to use taxpayer funding to discriminate on the bases of religion or sexuality. During the question and answer portion of this panel, most of the questions revolved around this issue, though in the end the group was not able to come to a clear consensus or compromise on what the law should be. All agreed that it was likely to be an issue that the Supreme Court will have to rule on at some point.

The other major panel revolved around the state of social science research regarding the effectiveness of faith-based social service providers versus secular ones. The panelists for this discussion included Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University, Rebecca Sager, Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Renata Cobbs Fletcher, Vice President for Public Policy and Community Partnerships at Public/Private Ventures and Stephen Monsma, a Research Fellow at the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin College. Throughout this discussion, panelists reported the results of recent research regarding how effective different organizations are at social service provision. The conclusion that all of them seemed to reach was that religious organizations were slightly better at providing some services (such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens) and secular organizations were more effective at providing others (such as mentoring/tutoring) but overall there was no statistically significant difference in the effectiveness in most service provision. Thus, most of the panelists recommended not playing favorites with government grants towards one side or the other, but instead taking a results oriented approach to determine the best way to help individuals in need.

Creative Commons License
Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.