The devil’s in the details

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS…. In July, outlining his vision for a new kind of faith-based initiative, then-candidate Obama said all the right things. “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,” he said at the time.

As Obama saw it, ministries can apply for government grants to perform secular social services — just as they have for decades — but he would draw clear, bright-line safeguards to protect everyone’s (ministries, taxpayers, government) interests.

The bad news is, Obama, to my disappointment, is not sticking to the position he outlined last summer. The good news is, his faith-based initiative is still very different — and far preferable — to that of his immediate predecessor.

President Obama today signed an executive order creating his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which adds a legal review on contentious issues of church and state separation as well as a panel of advisers that includes secular and religious leaders.

White House aides said it departs from the Bush administration’s initiative, which allowed faith-based groups to hire only those of their own faith and, instead, will decide such issues on a case-by-case basis. Among the new priorities of the office, aides said, would be attempting to reduce the number of abortions and efforts to support women and families.

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Capital Hilton in Washington this morning, Obama said the goal of the initiative “will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line our founders wisely drew between church and state.”

Obama also gave multiple shout-outs to non-believers, and even humanists, this morning. As you might imagine, this isn’t quite the norm for a National Prayer Breakfast, and it speaks to a healthy respect for spiritual diversity.

As for the policy dispute, Obama’s position isn’t that bad, but it could be a lot better.

To be sure, Bush’s position was a mess. Religious groups were favored over secular. Some religious groups were discouraged from seeking grants altogether. Church-state separation was identified as a “barrier.” Obama’s policy scraps all of this.

But it also suggests there’s some legal wiggle room where there isn’t. Whereas Obama said in July that issues regarding employment, for example, were settled, now he’s saying they aren’t. While Obama saw no direct funding of churches in a publicly-funded program, now he sees “nuance.” A blanket protection for the First Amendment is now open to case-by-case scrutiny, which may or may not produce the right response.

It appears the Justice Department will have considerable influence on how the initiative is implemented, and will scrutinize constitutional issues and offer legal “guidance.” Here’s hoping the lawyers get it right.

For more on this, Sarah Posner has been doing great work covering the story the past several days.

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