Recently the Obama administration announced guidance on public/private partnerships between the government and faith-based groups is unlikely to please those looking for assurances that religious groups will be required to abide by civil rights protections in hiring and firing.
The 50-page report comes 18 months after President Obama issued an executive order calling for more transparency as faith-based groups work with the government to meet social needs and amidst never-ending controversy surrounding the Catholic Church’s refusal to abide by non-discrimination policies in administering social services.
The report breaks little new ground, but reaffirms that a faith-based organization can provide federally funded social services without removing religious art, scriptures and symbols from their facilities. It also makes clear that explicitly religious activities can’t be supported by federal funds but are permitted if they are funded privately and occur at a separate time and location from programs that receive government money. Finally, beneficiaries who object to the religious character of a provider must be referred promptly to an alternative.
Separation of church/state watchdog Americans United gave the guidance a mixed score. Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “This guidance makes some significant improvements to the Bush faith-based initiative, but it falls far short of what it ought to do. This fails to fully protect the interests of Americans who need help from their government or the rights of taxpayers who don’t want their money subsidizing religion.
“And worst of all, this leaves in place Bush rules allowing overt bigotry in government-funded employment,” Lynn continued. “A fundamentalist Christian church can still run a publicly funded social service program and hang out a sign that says, “Government job opening: No Catholics, Jews, Muslims or Atheists need apply.”
Lynn, who served with a White House working group that offered advice on the church-state implications of the faith-based initiative, said he is also concerned that some of the language in the new guidance seems overly focused on giving religious agencies too much leeway in how they operate public social services.
Said Lynn, “There are a lot of loopholes in this guidance, and I fear that some of them are big enough to drive a church bus through.”
He noted, for example, that the guidance forbids the use of public funds to buy or distribute devotional materials but also says that staff in federally funded programs may teach about religion and make use of the Bible and other scripture if it’s “consistent with the purposes of the program.”
The guidance also shows the deep hypocrisy of the religious right’s attack on Planned Parenthood since the heart of that argument is the fact that any funding that goes to the health care provider necessarily supports, in some fashion, abortion services since those dollars can’t truly be segregated out from other sources of funding.
Most troubling of all though, is the fact that the presumption remains that faith-based organizations can simultaneously receive federal funding and engage in activities that violate the federal constitutional guarantees of other Americans.
Photo from jjjj56cp via flickr.