(UPDATE: Reactions are coming in; they are below the fold.)

UPDATE (2/6): Obama names out gay man to faith-based and neighborhood partnership council.

Fred Davie, the openly gay president of Public/Private Ventures, has been named to serve on President Barack Obama’s Policy Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Davie will work to provide objective, nonpartisan advice to the president on a variety of public policy matters, including strategies to increase the effectiveness of social services delivered by community and faith-based organizations.


Here we go — the President has just released his plans for the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  The main bone of contention here (aside from whether the government should be doing this at all, that’s a different topic), is how faith-based discrimination in hiring and firing is going to be handled, since there are no federal protections for LGBTs. This was the response during the campaign:

In answer to a reporter’s question, Obama said federal anti-discrimination laws do not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation. But Obama said he believes local laws in some states prohibiting discrimination against gays would apply to faith-based social programs funded with federal money in those states.

Well, that doesn’t do those of us in states where there are no protections, and the Obama administration knows that.

I have received the White House press release on the announcement, and look at the vague language regarding equal protection:

As the priorities of this Office are carried out, it will be done in a way that upholds the Constitution – by ensuring that both existing programs and new proposals are consistent with American laws and values. The separation of church and state is a principle President Obama supports firmly – not only because it protects our democracy, but also because it protects the plurality of America’s religious and civic life. The Executive Order President Obama will sign today strengthens this by adding a new mechanism for the Executive Director of the Office to work through the White House Counsel to seek the advice of the Attorney General on difficult legal and constitutional issues.

Another major issue for the LGBT community has been the prospect of anti-gay orgs using tax dollars to proselytize or provide services that are detrimental to the community.  Back in July of last year when Obama proposed the program, Obama’s Director of the LGBT Vote, Dave Noble, told the Blend that “under no circumstances will funds from the program will be granted to FBOs for proselytizing or reparative therapy.”

As I said back at the time, since Barack Obama cannot change federal law himself, at the very least a public statement announcing that Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in hand with his intention to firmly back a swift passage of an inclusive ENDA is called for. It would then highlight the injustices that a program like this illuminates. It would also signal to all FBOs seeking federal funds that the days of legal discrimination in hiring because of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression are coming to a close.

Of course the announcement mentions none of this. The full release from the White House is below the fold.  

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release  February 5, 2009

Obama Announces White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Washington (February 5, 2009) – President Barack Obama today signed an executive order establishing the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will work on behalf of Americans committed to improving their communities, no matter their religious or political beliefs.

“Over the past few days and weeks, there has been much talk about what our government’s role should be during this period of economic emergency. That is as it should be – because there is much that government can and must do to help people in need,” said President Obama. “But no matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone. There is a force for good greater than government. It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose larger than our own, that reveals itself not simply in places of worship, but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals, and any place an American decides.”

The White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will be a resource for nonprofits and community organizations, both secular and faith based, looking for ways to make a bigger impact in their communities, learn their obligations under the law, cut through red tape, and make the most of what the federal government has to offer.

President Obama appointed Joshua DuBois, a former associate pastor and advisor to the President in his U.S. Senate office and campaign Director of Religious Affairs, to lead this office. “Joshua understands the issues at stake, knows the people involved, and will be able to bring everyone together – from both the secular and faith-based communities, from academia and politics – around our common goals,” said President Obama.

The Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will focus on four key priorities, to be carried out by working closely with the President’s Cabinet Secretaries and each of the eleven agency offices for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships:

   * The Office’s top priority will be making community groups an integral part of our economic recovery and poverty a burden fewer have to bear when recovery is complete.

   * It will be one voice among several in the administration that will look at how we support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the need for abortion.

   * The Office will strive to support fathers who stand by their families, which involves working to get young men off the streets and into well-paying jobs, and encouraging responsible fatherhood.

   * Finally, beyond American shores this Office will work with the National Security Council to foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world.

As the priorities of this Office are carried out, it will be done in a way that upholds the Constitution – by ensuring that both existing programs and new proposals are consistent with American laws and values. The separation of church and state is a principle President Obama supports firmly – not only because it protects our democracy, but also because it protects the plurality of America’s religious and civic life. The Executive Order President Obama will sign today strengthens this by adding a new mechanism for the Executive Director of the Office to work through the White House Counsel to seek the advice of the Attorney General on difficult legal and constitutional issues.

The Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will include a new President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, composed of religious and secular leaders and scholars from different backgrounds. There will be 25 members of the Council, appointed to 1-year terms.

Members of the Council include:

Judith N. Vredenburgh, President and Chief Executive Officer, Big Brothers / Big Sisters of America

Philadelphia, PA

Rabbi David N. Saperstein, Director & Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and noted church/state expert

Washington, DC

Dr. Frank S. Page, President emeritus, Southern Baptist Convention

Taylors, SC

Father Larry J. Snyder, President, Catholic Charities USA

Alexandria, VA

Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., Pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church

Cleveland, OH

Eboo S. Patel, Founder & Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Corps

Chicago, IL

Fred Davie, President, Public / Private Ventures, a secular non-profit intermediary

New York, NY

Dr. William J. Shaw, President, National Baptist Convention, USA

Philadelphia, PA

Melissa Rogers, Director, Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and expert on church/state issues

Winston-Salem, NC

Pastor Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor, Northland, a Church Distributed

Lakeland, FL

Dr. Arturo Chavez, Ph.D., President & CEO, Mexican American Cultural Center

San Antonio, TX

Rev. Jim Wallis, President & Executive Director, Sojourners

Washington, DC

Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, Presiding Bishop, 13th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church

Knoxville, TN

Diane Baillargeon, President & CEO, Seedco, a secular national operating intermediary

New York, NY

Richard Stearns, President, World Vision

Bellevue, WA

I don’t know anything about most of the folks on the above list, but as you can see, the anti-gay Southern Baptist Convention is represented.

So, instead of the usual griping, what is politically feasible to address the obvious legal issues and conflicts since there aren’t federal protections in place for LGBT citizens? Religious freedom is protected, and thus discrimination on that basis is legal. The Obama administration will face challenges over state and local laws that do have anti-discrimination laws on the books.

There’s also the matter of hair-splitting — so Fundie Church ABC, which also has an ex-gay therapy program, will it be able to receive fed funds to run a soup kitchen? What oversight will protect our tax dollars from being spent to help pray-away-the gay instead of potatoes for the pot of soup? What financial disclosure will occur? There are a lot of questions and land mines ahead.

***

UPDATE: Reaction is coming in…

People for the American Way’s President, Kathryn Kolbert :

“During the campaign, President Obama made clear that religious organizations that receive federal money should not discriminate.  We strongly support that principle, but it’s disappointing that today President Obama has missed an opportunity to put it into practice immediately.

“It’s not about left or right: it’s about upholding the Constitution.  If churches accept federal funds, it’s deeply inappropriate for them to discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring.  It’s unconstitutional for federal money to support programs that only benefit those who profess a particular faith.  

“President Obama needs to make good on his campaign promise that tax dollars aren’t used to unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of religion.  Too often, religious discrimination is used as a proxy for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race, and gender.  People For is committed to ensuring justice and equality for all, and I look forward to working with the Obama Administration to correct this problem.”

Dan at Street Prophets:

he conclusion, unfortunately, is that we have no earthly idea what Obama’s going to do about the discrimination rules. He says he’s opposed to discrimination, and he’s typically a man of his word on such matters. But there are lots of other signs that say otherwise. I’m willing to bet the fudge factor is intentional and we’ll be seeing lots of ambiguity as COFANP develops.

ACLU:

“President Obama launched his faith-based initiative today by heading into uncharted and dangerous waters,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “What we are seeing today is significant – a president giving his favored clergy a governmental stamp of approval. There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion – or religious leaders meddling in federal policy – through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president’s chosen religious leaders.”

Today’s announcement included the appointment of 25 members of a government advisory committee that will be dominated by religious leaders. The mission of the government committee will be to advise the president and the White House faith-based office on how to distribute federal dollars, and also advise on a range of other issues such as AIDS and women’s reproductive health care. Although former President George W. Bush gave prominence to his faith-based initiative and informally consulted with individual religious leaders, even he never formed a government advisory committee made up primarily of clergy.

Although the president restated today his earlier campaign commitment to end the discriminatory hiring practices of government-funded religious groups that President Bush allowed, he deferred changing the rules. As a result, potentially hundreds of billions of dollars of new federal spending in the economic stimulus package now before the Senate could be distributed under the existing rules that allow discrimination in hiring in federally-funded programs.

“President Obama has put the cart before the horse,” said Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel. “He is expanding the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative without putting the most important safeguards in place. The president has created a more powerful office with a greater ability to shovel federal taxpayer dollars to religious groups, but civil rights protections are being deferred for later study and decisions. With the president likely to soon have additional hundreds of billions of economic stimulus dollars at his disposal, he should have abolished the discriminatory rules of his predecessor before greasing the way for more federal funds going to religious groups.”

UPDATE 2: Sarah Posner at Tapped broke this last night. You can also read her follow up reporting here. A snippet:

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is calling on Obama to rescind the Bush executive order on employment discrimination. Its executive director, Barry Lynn, says, “It’s disappointing to see President Obama beginning to roll out his faith-based program without immediately putting in place civil rights and civil liberties safeguards. It’s wrong to expand a program without first fixing the policies that promoted job discrimination, forced religion on vulnerable people and became mired in partisan politics.”

But a source identified only as a “religious leader knowledgeable of the plans for the revamped office” told the AP: “You can do a lot of things without rescinding those orders. That’s not a necessary step to make changes.” The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and another evangelical member of the CLURT coalition which says it is working to defuse the “culture wars,” told the AP: “I believe it’s not practical and it’s not going to happen – and the president knows the backlash from the faith community would be egregious . . . . To push the envelope on that, to say, for example, ‘You’re going to have to hire gays and lesbians’ … that would be unprecedented.”

Meaning – discrimination will be allowed because ENDA isn’t in place — and obviously the prospect of supporting ENDA in this context was so frightening it (or the related discrimination) couldn’t even be named in the press release. Feel the tread marks?

Related:

* Obama campaign is unclear on gays and faith-based funds (GPC, July 18, 2008)

* Blend exclusive: Obama faith-based initiative plan will bar reparative therapy, proselytizing

* Eight questions on Obama and “Faith Based Initiatives”.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding

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