Wednesday's White House executive order on "faith-based" funding fails to correct significant constitutional problems and leaves important civil rights issues unresolved, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Americans United applauded President Barack Obama's decision to require federal agencies to provide alternatives for people who do not want to receive social services at religious charities and also welcomed a process to create greater transparency in the program by requiring that recipient organizations be listed on government Web sites.
But AU is disappointed that the order allows public funds to go directly to houses of worship, allows publicly funded faith-based charities to display religious signs and scriptures and entirely dodges the issue of religious hiring bias by faith-based charities that receive federal funds.
"I'm disappointed," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This leaves much of George W. Bush's faith-based initiative in place. That's not the change many Americans hoped for when President Obama took office.
"I am particularly frustrated that President Obama still has done nothing to ban hiring bias by publicly funded religious charities," continued Lynn. "That's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. No American should be denied a government-funded job because he or she holds the 'wrong' views about religion."
Lynn noted that Obama, as a candidate, vowed to repeal this policy. Today's order, however, leaves the Bush-era rules in places. A wide array of religious, civil rights and civil liberties organizations have appealed to the president to take action on the issue, and polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose faith-based employment bias.
Lynn said he is still hopeful Obama will see the basic unfairness of publicly funded job discrimination and rescind the Bush policy.
"I don't believe Barack Obama wants to go down in history as the president who helped George W. Bush roll back civil rights and religious liberty," Lynn said. "At a time when jobs are scarce, it is especially troubling that qualified applicants can be rejected from government-funded positions because they don't go to the 'right' church.
"Taxpayer money should never be used to underwrite religion or religious bias," Lynn concluded. "That's a fundamental constitutional principle, and it needs to be observed."
Americans United has been wary of the faith-based initiative since the concept was first introduced in the 1990s by then-Sen. John Ashcroft. AU maintains that a special government program that looks for ways to funnel public funds to religious entities is inherently problematic under the First Amendment.