WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama waded into the eternal debate over church and state on Thursday, creating his own White House council to provide government assistance to faith-based groups that help the poor.
With his own untraditional path to faith as backdrop, Obama called religious and faith-based groups such as Catholic Charities uniquely qualified to step in at a time of great need.
"Few are closer to what's happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations," Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday. "People trust them. Communities rely on them. And we will help them."
Obama said that he'd handle the sensitive issue of how to separate church and state differently from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Aides stressed that he wouldn't allow government money to be used in programs that preach one religion or that refuse to hire people who don't share their religion.
However, Obama left in place five executive orders signed by Bush that allow the groups receiving government funds to proselytize or refuse to hire non-believers. One, signed on Dec. 12, 2002, specifically decreed that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech meant that any group should be able to receive federal taxpayer money "without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression or religious character."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that "President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative allowed religious groups that accept tax funding to engage in discriminatory hiring and celebrated faith-based groups that proselytize.
"Today's Obama action leaves the Bush executive orders in place, including one that specifically authorizes religion-based employment discrimination in publicly funded programs."
Lynn said he was "very disappointed" that Obama stopped short of directly barring evangelism and religion-based hiring bias in tax-financed programs.
"I would rather there be no 'faith-based' office," Lynn said. "But if it exists, it must comply with long-established protections guaranteeing civil rights and civil liberties."
"President Obama has put the cart before the horse," said Christopher Anders, the senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"He is expanding the Bush administration's faith-based initiative without putting the most important safeguards in place. The president has created a more powerful office with a greater ability to shovel federal taxpayer dollars to religious groups, but civil-rights protections are being deferred for later study and decisions."
In an interview, Joshua DuBois, the new director of Obama's White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said it's necessary to have such an effort inside the government.
"The government can't do everything. We have to work with the groups that are in the communities," he said.
DuBois conceded that Obama's order "doesn't resolve" the objection to Bush's orders and proselytizing by groups receiving federal money. He said, however, that it does set up a review of those orders.
Asked why Obama didn't suspend the Bush orders pending the review, as he's done on other issues, DuBois said the White House doesn't yet have "a good sense of what these groups are doing. . . . We have found that these groups want to follow the law, if they know what the law is."
Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama said he learned first hand as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side the power of church and faith-based groups to help people, something that helped lead him to Christianity.
"I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I've ever known," he said.
"I didn't become a Christian until many years later," he added. "It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck, no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose, His purpose."
Obama, who quit his Chicago church after news media stories about inflammatory rhetoric by his pastor, has not yet decided which church in Washington to join, spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday.
While stressing his own faith, Obama insisted that his new initiative would help groups from all faiths, as well as non-religious groups such as the Big Brothers Big Sisters.
"The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another or even religious groups over secular groups," Obama said. "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."
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