News and analysis
November 17, 2010

Obama Clarifies Rules on Religious Charities

President Obama signed an executive order on Wednesday to clarify how the constitutional separation of church and state affects religious charities that get federal money to provide social services.

It said, for example, that such groups must separate their religious activities from the programs that get government dollars and refer people who are uncomfortable with the organization's religious nature to other providers.

The order endorses recommendations made last spring by a White House advisory council, made up mostly of religious leaders.

It says federal agencies must post online all policies and regulations that touch on the issues covered by the order, as well as a list of groups that receive federal money to provide social services.

However, charities do not need to remove religious art or symbols in rooms where they provide social services, and they may use religious terms in their names, select board members on a religious basis, and include religious references in mission statements of governing documents.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, praised some of the new rules but criticized the president for failing to deal with one of the most controversial questions involving religious groups—whether charities that receive government social-service grants and contracts should be allowed hire only people who follow their faiths. The White House has referred that matter to the Justice Department.

"That's the 800-pound gorilla in the room," Mr. Lynn said in a statement. "No American should be denied a government-funded job because he or she holds the 'wrong' views about religion."