WASHINGTON Declaring that "there is a force for good greater than government," President Barack Obama yesterday established a White House office of faith-based initiatives with a broader mission than the one overseen by his Republican predecessor.
Obama said the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which he created by executive order, would reach out to organizations that provide help "no matter their religious or political beliefs."
Obama said the office would work with nonprofit organizations "both secular and faith-based" and would help them determine how to make a bigger impact in their cities, learn their obligations under the law and cut through government red tape.
In a time of economic crisis, the president said, it was important for the government to help distressed Americans but added that "the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone."
Obama said the top priority of the faith-based office would be "making community groups an integral part of our economic recovery and poverty a burden fewer have to bear when recovery is complete."
The creation of the office is not without controversy or criticism and some questioning by Obama himself about certain aspects of the initiative.
As a presidential candidate last summer, Obama promised that his administration wouldn't award federal contracts to religious groups that only hire members of their own faith. He said yesterday that his White House would consult lawyers to determine what hiring practices were acceptable on a case-by-case basis.
The executive order Obama signed yesterday expanded on the previous White House faith-based office. It also fell short at least for now of what Obama outlined during that July campaign speech.
Candidate Obama said then he had no problem with groups requiring their employees to belong to the same faith, but only in the parts of their activities and outreach that were not supported by U.S. taxpayer dollars.
"First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them or against the people you hire on the basis of their religion," Obama said while standing outside a Zanesville, Ohio, community center. Behind him was a podium labeled "Stronger Together: Faith and Community."
"Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs," he said.
Former President George W. Bush wanted to allow religious charities that receive federal money to perform social services to be able to hire or fire staffers based on their faith. He never was able to get Congress to go along, so he established more limited rules along those lines by executive order.
Obama's move yesterday could be a first step toward reversing Bush's rules. The executive order allows Joshua DuBois, the new head of Obama's faith-based office, to talk with the attorney general's office and White House counsel to "seek the opinion ... on any constitutional and statutory questions involving existing or prospective programs and practices."
But because it did not specify that he never would allow taxpayer-funded hiring based on religion, it frustrated some of Obama's supporters. Some even wanted him to scrap the entire Bush-era office.
"Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state. But I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea so long as we follow a few basic principles," Obama said.
Yesterday, Obama asked White House lawyers and the Justice Department to write a policy that would address the question of hiring.
"There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this hiring problem," said Ira C. Lupu, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law. "It might be at the end of the day, faith-based hiring is going to be allowed in some government-funded programs and not in others."
"There is a pretty clear lack of legal clarity and data in this area,” DuBois said. “This mechanism allows us to explore those areas on a case-by-case basis and find out exactly where things are.”
Obama also named 25 religious and secular leaders to a new advisory board.
The Rev. Frank Page, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a member of the advisory council, said he was pleased that religious groups at least for now would be able to make hiring decisions based on faith, and hoped the practice would become permanent.
"I don't believe that federal money should be used for proselytizing," Page said. "But if the funds are being used to help the hurting, the homeless, the hungry, then I think it's appropriate to let the faith-based organizations be true to their own convictions in who they hire and don't hire."
To lead the office, Obama appointed DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister who headed religious outreach for Obama's Senate office and his presidential campaign.
"The big picture is that President Obama believes faith-based and smaller secular neighborhood organizations can play a role in American renewal. They can work with the federal government to address big problems," DuBois said in an interview with the Associated Press. "We're also going to make sure we have a keener eye toward the separation of church and state."
Obama said the office also would work to reach out overseas "to foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world."
Groups that were critical of the Bush faith-based office including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and People For the American Way issued statements yesterday expressing disappointment in the Obama version. All said that by failing to repeal Bush policies, the White House would allow participating religious groups to continue discrimination in hiring.
The ACLU also charged that the new advisory council amounted to "a president giving his favored clergy a governmental stamp of approval."
Before signing the order at the White House, Obama told the annual National Prayer Breakfast that the program would not show favoritism to any religious group and would adhere to a strict separation of church and state.
Addressing the gathering of lawmakers, dignitaries and world leaders, Obama spoke of how faith has often been a divisive tool, responsible for war and prejudice. But, he said, "there is no religion whose central tenet is hate."
"There is no god who condones taking the life of an innocent human being," he said, and all religions teach people to love and care for one another. That is the common ground underlying the faith-based office, he said.