From The Wall Street Journal
comes word that President Obama
intends to expand, yet clarify the role of faith-based programs to help with the nation's myriad problems. Championed and funded by the Bush
administration, these programs received mixed reviews from those who applauded the general mission that these religious organizations performed, but who also worried about the deterioration of the wall that separates church and state. Here's the Journal
Mr. Obama's goal, much like President George W. Bush's, is to harness the power of churches and other religious groups to solve some of the nation's toughest social problems. But almost from the start, the Bush plan was ensnared by constitutional questions about the separation between church and state, most notably whether an organization that received tax dollars can make hiring decisions on the basis of religion.
As a candidate, Mr. Obama came down firmly against such hiring. But on Thursday, he will take a more nuanced position, saying that these issues should be decided on a case by case basis...
In an Executive Order, however, Obama will direct the office of faith-based initiatives to go to the Department of Justice on-- in the words of Joshua DuBois, the new head for the White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships--"how to respect the Constitution."
The thorny issues remain on just how to handle those organizations that do good work, but who, aided by taxpayer dollars, are also actively proselytizing for new members, or whose hiring practices explicitly favor members of a given faith. In essence, Obama doesn't want the government to be in the business of promoting religion, but in these tough times realizes that it can use all the help it can get.
Here in Jacksonville, Florida, I've done some work for Operation New Hope,
one of the first faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Bush administration. The company has two components. One targets urban blight by buying up and refurbishing properties in deteriorated neighborhoods. Financial management classes also help struggling families attain the dream of home ownership. The second program, Ready4Work, targets recently released prisoners by offering job-skills training. A huge success, Ready4Work
has cut the prison recidivism rate by over 50%. That saves taxpayers millions each year, and ends the revolving door of crime and punishment.
Operation New Hope founder Kevin Gay
worked with the Obama team during the transition. He applauds the steps President is taking to better clarify the emphasis that faith should play going forward. "Government funds should not be used for buying Bibles," he told me by phone this morning. He also recalled a meeting with a cautious John Ashcroft
back when the first faith-based funding was approved. Then, as now, the worry was how to maintain a balance between using faith-based groups to deliver service without stepping on the Constitution. While Obama has decided to offer stricter governmental oversight, the Bush team tended to leave these decisions to the groups themselves. "He told us he was counting on us to be careful," says Gay.