WASHINGTON –– Executive orders issued by President Barack Obama Nov. 17 won both praise and criticism from organizations with an interest in how the initiatives of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships affect federally funded social services.
The six pages of orders affirmed fundamental principles for policies such as “no organization should be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief” and that organizations which receive federal funding are prohibited from discriminating against beneficiaries of social services on the basis of religion.
The orders followed many of the major recommendations in a 106-page report sent to the White House in March by the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The orders spelled out that faith-based organizations may participate in federal programs “without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression outside the programs in question or religious character.” Specifically, they cannot be required to remove or alter religious art or other symbols of faith from facilities where federally funded services are provided. Institutions also may include religious terms in their names, may select board members on a religious basis and include religious references in documents such as mission statements.
People who receive social services also will be entitled to be referred to another organization if they object to the religious character of a provider. And each beneficiary should receive written notice of that option.
The changes affect operating principles in place since President George W. Bush created the predecessor to the organization and Obama renamed the office and gave it a somewhat broader focus in 2009.
One advisory council member, Fr. Larry Snyder, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said in a statement that the orders are an affirmation of the council’s work that “should also lead us to a larger conversation about the need to work together to reform the tattered safety-net system.”
He added that implementing the recommendations is “critical to our ability to continue to provide services across a human services spectrum as we have for almost 300 years.”
At a House subcommittee hearing on the faith-based organization Nov. 18, the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation Church and State and a member of the faith-based advisory council, complained that the orders did not deal with the ticklish issue of hiring on the basis of religion.
Rev. Lynn, a minister of the United Church of Christ, called the issue “the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” saying it is “ethically and legally wrong” for recipients of federal funds to be allowed to hire and fire employees for those programs on a religious basis.
The question of religion-based hiring was explicitly not in the purview of the advisory council. The administration has said such cases would be handled by the Justice Department on a case-by-case basis.
Some funding issues raised by the advisory council but not referenced in the executive orders were addressed by Fr. Snyder in March. The council recommended the administration temporarily suspend requirements that recipient organizations provide matching funds to receive certain anti-poverty program grants.
The recommendations explained that nonprofit organizations have had to make dramatic budget cuts because of the economic downturn and that ending the requirement of matching funds might make the difference in whether services to the poor can continue to be provided.
Attorney and law professor Melissa Rogers, who chairs the faith-based council, said at the hearing of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution that the recommendations about allowing religious images to remain in buildings used for social services just makes sense.
“To cite an obvious example, no government official should insist that the St. Vincent de Paul Center change its name to the ‘Mr. Vincent de Paul Center,'” Rogers told the subcommittee. “A provider can have a religious name and mission while using grants funds appropriately and carefully separating government-funded activities from privately funded religious ones.”
Rogers heads the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School in North Carolina and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.