The conventional wisdom is that President Obama has embraced some of the Bush administration’s foreign and anti-terrorism policies while charting a generally liberal course on domestic issues. But there is one controversial domestic priority Obama has retained: his predecessor’s “faith-based initiative” to provide federal funds to religious social service agencies.
Obama never said he would dismantle the program, even though it was part of Bush’s outreach to conservative “values voters.” But he promised to do away with its most troubling component: permission for faith-based social service programs to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. That hasn’t happened.
In February, Obama said that his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships would abide by “fundamental constitutional commitments” and that the office could consult the attorney general on the constitutionality of specific programs. Left undisturbed, however, was a 2007 Justice Department memo concluding that the government couldn’t condition grants to religious groups on compliance with laws against bias in hiring.
The memo cited the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which exempts believers from laws that substantially burden their exercise of religion unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” in making them comply. A commonly cited example is an exemption from drug laws for Native Americans who use the hallucinogen peyote in religious ceremonies. But that and similar concessions don’t have the broad effect of a rule allowing a host of government-funded social service programs to discriminate against job applicants of the “wrong” religion.
Federal aid shouldn’t be withheld from a soup kitchen or a drug treatment center because it’s affiliated with a church, synagogue or mosque -- as long as those serving food or counseling addicts aren’t proselytizing, a scenario that is less likely if employees aren’t screened for their religious views. So where does that leave the “faith” in faith-based services funded by government? Where it belongs -- as a spur to good works performed for the larger community.
Last month, groups supporting the separation of church and state sent a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asking him to rescind the 2007 memo. A new administration shouldn’t casually reinterpret the law to serve a political purpose, as the Bush administration did with its memos justifying torture. In this case, however, both the 1st Amendment and a reasonable reading of federal law require a reversal of the Bush policy. In his campaign, Obama promised that groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate in hiring based on religion. He should keep faith with that principle.