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Obama Should Fix Bush-Era Faith-Based Initiative

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President Barack Obama should honor his pledge to reform the “faith-based” initiative by banning job discrimination in tax-funded programs and making it clear that public funds cannot support proselytizing, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a letter sent to Obama today, Americans United urged the president to reverse Bush-era faith-based policies that remain in effect today and follow through on reforms he proposed when he was a candidate.

“We’ve waited long enough,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The faith-based initiative has serious constitutional defects, and it’s time for a fix. Billions of federal tax dollars are going out the door without adequate religious liberty and civil rights safeguards.”

In a July 1, 2008, speech in Zanesville, Ohio, Obama promised to end Bush administration policies that allowed publicly funded faith-based social services to proselytize and discriminate in hiring on religious grounds.

In that speech, Obama said, “[I]f you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

AU’s letter asserts that Obama was on the right track and asserts he should make good on those promises.

The letter calls on Obama to issue an executive order reversing a Bush-era policy allowing employment discrimination in publicly funded programs and revoke a June 29, 2007, Office of Legal Counsel Memorandum that interpreted a federal religious freedom law to permit “faith-based” providers to engage in religious discrimination even where the statute authorizing the funding explicitly prohibits such discrimination.  

“As a consequence of inaction, the administration’s current policy is to allow religious organizations to take government funds and use those funds to discriminate in hiring against a qualified individual based on nothing more than his or her religious beliefs,” observes the AU letter. “This constitutes an appalling rollback of the civil rights protections that were first put in place under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

The letter goes on to say, “I am also deeply disappointed that no executive order has been issued clearly barring the awarding of any public funds to groups that proselytize.”

AU’s letter points out that the organization wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice in June about nine federal grants being made to religious groups. Four of them were to Teen Challenge affiliates in New York, Indiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania – a group known for its hiring bias and aggressive religious indoctrination.

The DOJ’s response was anemic, saying only that each grant applicant had been scrutinized by the Bush administration to make sure the funds are being used in a way that comports with constitutional requirements.

“I am amazed that the DOJ has taken this view when there is ample evidence that the previous administration often failed to meet its monitoring responsibilities,” writes Lynn in the letter.

Concludes the AU letter, “In your Zanesville speech, you asserted that ‘as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state.’ Mr. President, it is time to uphold that principle and keep your promise to correct the glaring deficiencies in the faith-based funding arena. I urge you to take immediate action to restore critical civil rights protections and vital religious freedom safeguards to your faith-based initiative.”


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