By Michelle Boorstein
Government agencies that do business with faith-based social service groups should let the public know clearly who is getting those contracts (and for how much), let faith-based contractors know what “explicitly religious” activities are prohibited, and be required to monitor and enforce church-state safeguards.
Those are among the dozens of recommendations that will probably be sent to the president in the coming days from his hand-picked faith advisory council. They were released Saturday by the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. They come from the council’s task forces, and like will be voted on by the full council later this week before heading to the president.
The task forces focus on ways to improve partnerships between government and faith-based social services groups that address such issues as fatherhood, global poverty and domestic poverty, among other things. But the topic that’s been most controversial is the area of the office’s constitutionality. That was the biggest complaint liberals and moderates had about President Bush’s faith-based office and it remains the most controversial under Obama.
Obama campaigned against a Bush rule that allowed faith-based social service providers to discriminate in hiring. Obama the candidate said that rule should be reversed, but then thrilled conservatives by leaving the Bush-era rule in place for the past year as their lawyers analyzed it and took it off the advisory council’s agenda. The office’s director, Josh DuBois, said last week at a Brookings Institution event that the analysis continues, a year later.
The recommendations on church-state issues broadly call for much more clarity on things like: the difference between direct and indirect aid and what are prohibited uses of direct government assistance (the task force urges the government to use the term “explicitly religious” instead of “inherently religious,” which has been misunderstood). Another recommendation likely to please conservatives: the majority of the president’s task force concluded that religious social service providers do not have to remove religious icons (crucifixes, statues, etc) from the spaces where people come to get help on things like job training or substance abuse.
“The recommendations . . . insist that beneficiaries must be notified of their religious liberty rights, including their rights to alternative providers,” the report states. “And the recommendations urge the Administration to take steps to increase confidence that the rules applicable to federally funded partnerships are actually being observed and that decisions about government grants are made on the merits of proposals, not on political or religious considerations.”
Here are the 12 major church-state recommendations:
The office continues to be a lightning rod among the relatively small community of people who closely watch the president’s handling of religious groups and religious leaders. It started out understood as Ground Zero for everything from how the White House would partner with faith-based social service groups to how Obama speaks about faith to how Democratic candidates would do faith outreach. Now many believe the influence of the office — and maybe of the faith community — is more limited.