Melissa Rogers shares how religious freedom and church-state separation shape her work
By Cherilyn Crowe
ATLANTA – The head of the White House’s faith-based office reminded the crowd gathered at the 2014 Religious Liberty Council Luncheon to continue to speak up for religious liberty and “never forget how much your voice matters.”
Melissa Rogers, the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, spoke to more than 650 people in Atlanta, Georgia, during the annual event on June 27. Rogers also received an award from the Baptist Joint Committee for her lifetime of work to protect religious liberty for all people.
After bringing greetings from President Barack Obama, Rogers recounted the American commitment to religious liberty and provided an overview of the work of her office.
“I’m pleased to report that when it comes to the freedom that allows diverse faiths to thrive, the state of our union is indeed strong,” she declared.
Rogers noted that the rich religious diversity of the United States — as well as a tradition of coming together to solve problems and better the country and the world — is no accident, but an “achievement.”
Observing that the First Amendment protection of the right to freely exercise religion is easy for most people to understand, Rogers explained that the prohibition against a government establishment of religion is a bit more complicated, even though it is just as important.
“No government-established faith is free; it’s a creature of the state. State establishment of religion not only harms the faith that is not favored, it also undermines the faith that the government embraces,” Rogers said. “The fact that faiths are free from government endorsement creates the conditions for religious voices to have credibility and power on public as well as private issues.”
Together, she noted, both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment ensure that people of every faith and of no faith are “equal as citizens before their government,” and those protections also keep religion as an “independent and authentic force.”
She told the crowd it was “our duty” to maintain that system, and explained how the American commitment to religious freedom and church-state separation shapes her work at the White House.
Rogers explained that the mission of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is not to promote faith, but it is to partner with community groups — both faith-based and secular — to help people who are in need.
Rogers said those non-financial partnerships are “crucial” ways to reach people who are struggling and to let them know about available government benefits and services, such as new flu shots, veterans benefits and college aid applications.
Rogers shared that another part of her job is implementing reforms to the office recommended by a diverse advisory council appointed by President Obama. Before working in her current role, Rogers served as the chair of that council. She also led a task force — which included BJC Executive Director Brent Walker — charged with drafting reform recommendations for the office.
Presently, she works to make sure those recommended changes are written into federal regulations and guidance. For example, beneficiaries of social services will receive written notice of their religious liberty protections when they receive government-funded services through a faith-based or community group. Among other statements, the notice informs those individuals that they cannot be discriminated against because of religion, they cannot be required to participate in an explicitly religious activity, and privately funded, explicitly religious activities must be separated from the government-funded service provided. Rogers said these important reforms are being put into place because “no one should ever be pressured along religious lines in order to receive government benefits.”
Her office also makes sure policymakers are aware of the ways in which different policies and laws can affect religion, including how changes to child care policies could affect centers run by congregations and how policies on international development could intersect with humanitarian and missionary work of faith groups.
“So, in all these things, especially because of the American commitment to the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, it is crucial for policymakers to be mindful about the way in which policy and law impact religious activities, institutions and ideas, and it is essential for us to remember that the First Amendment creates boundaries within which the government must operate.”
Rogers noted that not everyone agrees about where these boundaries are. “That’s part of our freedom, too, of course, and that makes this task difficult, but it also underscores its importance.”
On a daily basis, people of all faiths and no faith engage the White House on a wide range of policy issues. Rogers urged the crowd to speak up on issues that matter to them, including religious liberty.
“When you take the time from your busy life to stand up and to speak out, it makes an impact. It matters. We hear you. It matters at the White House, and it matters in the world.”
Before she was appointed to her position in 2013, Rogers served as the director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, as well as a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. She was part of the staff of the Baptist Joint Committee from 1994-1999.
“I feel like I’m home again,” Rogers told the crowd when she first took the stage. She briefly reflected on her professional journey during her speech, noting that her appreciation for the BJC has grown over the years. “I can safely say that there is no more respected voice on religious liberty in Washington or in the country than the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty,” she said.
After her address, Rogers received the J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award. Named for the BJC’s first executive director, the award recognizes the outstanding contributions of individuals in defense of religious liberty for all.
The luncheon also included updates from Washington, provided to the crowd by Walker and BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman. Business conducted at the event included the election of four Religious Liberty Council representatives to the BJC Board of Directors. Charles Cates of Washington, Emily Hull McGee of Kentucky, and Jenny Smith of Alabama were elected for the first time, and Joe Kutter of Kansas was elected to his second term. As the individual donor organization of the BJC, the RLC cultivates an understanding of religious freedom among Baptists and the larger public. It is one of the 15 supporting bodies of the BJC, with 13 RLC members serving three-year terms on the BJC Board of Directors.
The Religious Liberty Council Luncheon is held each year in conjunction with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. The 2015 event is scheduled to be in Dallas, Texas.
From the July/August 2014 Report From the Capital. Click here to read the next article.