Order broadens religious liberty protections; fails to address hiring issue

November 17, 2010

Contact: Jeff Huett|
Phone: 202-544-4226 | Cell: 202-680-4127

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama issued an executive order (pdf) Wednesday implementing many of the recommendations of a diverse advisory council designed, in part, to advise and reform the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The executive order amends one issued by President George W. Bush in 2002 and clarifies some of the rules governing partnerships between the government and faith-based and community-based social service groups.

Among the changes are provisions that ensure compliance with constitutional standards prohibiting government-funded religion and protect the beneficiaries of federally funded social services. Specifically, organizations are forbidden from engaging in “explicitly religious” activities in the course of a program that receives direct federal financial assistance.

Click here to download the executive order in a pdf format.

The amended order also directs agencies that award government aid to establish procedures to ensure that beneficiaries can receive benefits from an alternative provider if the beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization. Each participating organization is responsible for responding to objections and providing referrals to other programs, as well as timely notice of these options for program beneficiaries.  This provision replaces and expands upon a weaker provision that was often criticized as blurring constitutional boundaries.

The executive order maintains protection of the character of faith-based organizations, allowing them to compete and participate in federal funding programs without varying their autonomy, expression or religious character. In addition, the organizations will not be forced to remove or cover religious symbols or icons, as long as they do not use direct government funds to implement an explicitly religious program.

In February, a task force of religious and secular leaders charged with reforming the White House faith-based office, including BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker and chaired by former BJC General Council Melissa Rogers, presented 12 recommendations to President Obama’s 25-member Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The recommendations were made to strengthen the constitutional and legal footing of public-private partnerships. The recommendations ask the administration to clarify the prohibited uses of direct financial assistance, provide guidance on the protection of religious identity while providing social services and assure the religious liberty rights of clients and beneficiaries of federal social service funds.

Overall, Walker was pleased with the executive order, as well as the deliberations of the task force and advisory council that led to it.

“The President’s Executive Order makes major strides in more clearly identifying how government and religious organizations can work together effectively while honoring constitutional protections for religious liberty,” he said. “As a member of the Reform of the Office Task Force, I was privileged to have had a part in contributing to this very helpful and needed executive order.”

Not mentioned in the executive order was the issue of whether the government should require houses of worship to form separate corporations, such as 501(c)(3) organizations, to receive federal funding for social services and work to reduce barriers to obtaining 501(c)(3) status. The BJC has long-supported this approach as a way to avoid commingling federal dollars with financial gifts from parishioners.

“I regret that our recommendation requiring a separate corporation was not included, but the executive order embraced most of our recommendations,” Walker said.

The amendments did not address the contentious issue of religious hiring in government-funded programs, leaving in place Bush-era regulations. This issue was not part of the Advisory Council’s charge. The administration has stated that the issue will be treated on a case-by-case basis by the Attorney General and the White House Counsel.

“This admittedly divisive issue cannot be kicked down the road forever,” Walker said.  “The president missed an opportunity on this point. It’s simply wrong for the government to subsidize religious discrimination.”

The Baptist Joint Committee is a nearly 75-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.