President Barack Obama today created a federal effort to help religious groups and grass-root charities fight social ills.
He signed an executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a revamped version of the office started by President George W. Bush, and a council of religious and nonprofit leaders to advise him on antipoverty efforts and other issues.
“The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups. 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,” the president said today during a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual meeting of political and religious officials in Washington.
“This work is important, because whether it’s a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups providing job-training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations,” he said.
Joshua DuBois, a young Pentecostal minister, was appointed to lead the office, which was previously known as the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Mr. DuBois, 26, holds a master’s degree in public and international affairs from Princeton University and was associate pastor at the Calvary Praise and Worship Center, a small church in Cambridge, Mass. He served as an aide to Mr. Obama when he was a senator from Illinois and during Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, Mr. DuBois led efforts to connect the candidate with evangelical Christians and other religious groups.
“He’s built a lot of good relationships with leaders in the faith community — Christian, Jewish, Muslim — and across political lines. He’s had a lot of conversations with people who were in the Bush White House or who supported the last administration,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners, a religious organization in Washington.
Mr. Wallis is one of the members of the newly formed President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Among its 25 members, who will serve one-year terms, are the leaders of national nonprofit groups like Catholic Charities USA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, and Seedco.
Mr. Wallis said the council and the new faith-based office represent Mr. Obama’s commitment to expanding the government’s work to assist charities, both sectarian and secular. He said the office would act in a more bipartisan manner than it did under President Bush and do more to connect groups with a broader federal plan to curb the number of impoverished and hungry Americans.
“You’re going to see a real poverty agenda coming out of the faith-based office,” he said.
Also in contrast to the way the office operated under Mr. Bush, Mr. DuBois is unlikely to be the White House official deciding how the federal government should provide grants to churches and other groups, said Robert W. Tuttle, professor of religion and law at the George Washington Law School.
Mr. Bush’s appointees to lead the office primarily were experts in such regulations. Given Mr. DuBois’s relative inexperience in Washington, “I doubt seriously he will be the one reshaping policy on aid” for religious organizations, Mr. Tuttle said.
One policy, in particular, is under scrutiny.
During his administration, President Bush signed an executive order that allowed religious organizations that receive federal grants to discriminate in their hiring based on religion.
Many Christian aid organizations support the employment provision, saying they want to have staff members who embrace their spiritual values. World Vision USA, in Federal Way, Wash., for example, hires only people who accept the Apostles’ Creed and a “statement of faith” based on Christian beliefs.
If that practice were to be forbidden, the organization has said, it would consider suing the government.
“If such an order were issued … I am certain many organizations of all faiths — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu — would consider litigation. Faith-based charities would have to challenge whatever federal agency was offering the grant, but discriminating against faith-based applicants,” Dean R. Owen, a spokesman for World Vision, wrote in an e-mail mesage to The Chronicle.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington civil-liberties group, has made a similar legal threat, but if President Obama continues to allow government grants to support religious organizations that engage in such hiring.
“In an ideal world, there would be no faith-based office,” the Rev Barry W. Lynn, the group’s president, said in a statement. “But if we must have this office, certain steps must be taken to bring it into line with the commands of the Constitution.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama promised to prohibit the hiring practice. Yet the president did not alter the Bush rule in today’s executive order, as Americans United and others had hoped.
Mr. Wallis, of Sojourners, said he expects the president will not rewrite the rule, but have a discussion with faith leaders to “clarify” it.
“I don’t expect the administration to do anything big, or new, or radical in changing the status quo,” he said. Given the current economic crisis, “this is not the time to disrupt effective partnerships with faith-based organizations.”