By William Wan
Obama’s Faith-Based Council held its first face-to-face meeting today at White House offices. The group tackled two of the six issues Obama has asked the group to grapple with: a) reform of the President’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships b) economic recovery and poverty.
The other four task forces — fatherhood, interfaith, climate change and global poverty — will be addressed tomorrow when the meetings continue in the cavernous Indian Treaty Room in a White House executive building.
Some of the most interesting/controversial stuff from the day came from the task force charged with figuring out how to reform the faith-based office. They have the touchiest subjects regarding separation of church and state, constitutional boundaries, etc.
The task force leader Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs, said her group is looking into issues like:
* what restrictions should be in place for funding to religious groups who help society but also do religious activities (e.g. group that feeds the poor but also holds bible study)
*protections of beneficiaries so that people of different faiths or even of no faith benefit equally from government’s partnerships with religious groups.
*issues with 501(c)(3)’s and religious groups…a lot of churches are forming 501(c)(3)’s so they can partner with government to avoid separation issues.
As a side note, faith-based office director Joshua DuBois has been stating throughout the council’s meetings over the phone and in person that the burning question of religious hiring is not going to be handled by the council (instead will be handled on a case-by-case basis by White House legal counsel, DuBois’ office and the Department of Justice), but that didn’t stop people from asking questions about it anyway. An ACLU representative, for instance, got up to make a pointed statement near the end about the legal implications of allowing World Vision, a Christian group focused on helping children, to hire based on religious views.
Meanwhile, the poverty task force, which is led in part by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, said it’s focused on improving access to benefits and getting the government to consider in all its decisions how they will affect the poor. Also of interest was the the back-and-forth between nonprofit advocates on the board and Obama officials when they started discussing problems service organizations were having in getting funding from the government because much of it is funneled through individual state governments.