OK, so maybe the White House doesn’t want you to forget all about its Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. After all, the projects that they are involved with tend to be as wholesome as fatherhood and apple pie. (Joke alert: they’ve been involved in fatherhood programs.)

So why has there been, as I intimated yesterday, such foot-dragging when it comes to implementing President Obama’s 2010 Executive Order cleaning up the office act (by which I mean, establishing proper ways and means for the government to engage faith-based organizations [FBOs] in the provision of social services without violating the religion clauses of the First Amendment)? I mean, the wheels of the federal bureaucracy grind slow, but you can be sure it’s not going to take three years just to begin the process of changing  the rules on marriage in federal departments and agencies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision.

Here’s my theory.

Take a look at “Protections for Beneficiaries,” the most noteworthy section (in my view) of the Report prepared by the Interagency Working Group in April of last year. It deals with the important principle that clients who who don’t want to receive their services from an FBO need to be offered alternative providers. Or “Separation of Explicitly Religious Activities,” which specifies how FBOs must separate their federally funded social service programs from their religious work.

In its attention to the details of maintaining church-state separation, the Report begs the faith-based question that the Obama Administration has sedulously avoided answering ever since it arrived in Washington: Can FBOs discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff members to perform federally funded social service programming?

Candidate Obama said no, but in 2009 the question was explicitly removed from the purview of OFANP and handed over to the Justice Department, with instructions to deal with it “on a case-by-case basis.” Big evangelical social service providers like World Vision threatened to blow a gasket if such employment discrimination were disallowed. So here the otherwise superseded Bush rules still apply: You get to hire your own co-religionists to perform government programs that must not promote religion.

This is the elephant in the living room that the White House doesn’t want you to see.

Categories: Politics

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


  1. It would be more efficient if the government ran its own social services programs rather than outsourcing them to “faith-based organizations.” But for political purposes the government has to cover its tracks so that citizens can think that these projects are good church charity rather than bad government welfare. And, of course, the government has to bankroll church bureaucrats who run these faux-charities. Americans are convinced that whatever the government does is inefficient and choked with bureaucracy, but the faith-based outsourcing program just multiplies bureaucracies. In addition to the government bureaucracy, outsourcing means another church-based bureaucracy to write grant proposals and otherwise deal with the government bureaucracy.

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