Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Faith Based Iitiatives - a Mess, a Very Sad Mess

The discussion of faith-based initiatives is such a thorny, nasty mess that it is a wonder anyone writes about it at all. The best one can do is to highlight the issues and stand back. Waaaay back.

OK - let's start. Even uncovering the history to the current kerfuffle is tricky.

First, keep in mind these points:

1. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlines the right of religious organizations to choose to hire only employees who share that organization's religious beliefs.

2. For dozens and dozens of years religious colleges and universities, religious hospitals, religious foster care and adoption agencies and many other religious organizations have received government funding.

3. In 2001, George W. Bush established a White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Republican leaders of the House introduced legislation expanding the faith based initiatives to a much broader range of federal funding. The New York Times in 2009 was not as charitable:

The [Bush] administration provided large grants for projects favored by the Christian right, like Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries and Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program that openly pushed religious conversion (even using the phrase “completed Jews” to describe teenage converts from Judaism) as a way of overcoming addiction. John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of Mr. Bush’s faith-based office, resigned after only eight months and later complained about the politicization of the program.

4. During the Bush years, a provision was added to legislation that required the religious group to separate any overt religious activity from the aid they were providing with government funds. Essentially, a group could be very sectarian with their right hand, but had to be non-religious with their left. Someone actually thought this would work.

5. Obama campaigned on a pledge to bar funds from houses of worship that would use the money to proselytize or discriminate in hiring on the basis of a prospective employee’s religion and beliefs.

6. In February of 2009, President Obama established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the 25-member President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This group was to have an even wider advisory scope than the Bush group. BUT they were specifically told not to deal with the hiring issue. That would be handled on a one by one case by case basis, and was under further legal review.

7. After their first year, their first 73 page report reads, in its opening paragraph, "At the Administration’s direction, the Council did not address the issue of religion-based employment decisions regarding jobs partially or fully subsidized by Federal funds."

8. They also did not address abortion, although President Obama did say he wanted the group to look at "abortion reduction". According to the Christian Post, he later retracted. "Joshua DuBois, the director of the office, said the council members have been involved in conversations about abortion reduction but did not create a task force for the issue because the president would like to extend the discussion to include the Domestic Policy Council."

So here is one part of the mess.

Should a group accepting federal funds be forced to hire gay people or people who support reproductive choice for the federally funded part of their work, when they regard these people as representing all they do not believe in? There are many thoughts about this, all of them usually a decibel louder than normal conversation. Wishing won't make it so. The Catholic church has made it abundantly clear that they will stop providing services if they are forced to provide support to gay people or to people affirming freedom of choice.

And another fine mess.

According to the Huffington Post, Catholic Charities in DC has stopped paying spousal benefits for all new employees (just in case any of them are gay, thereby leveling the playing field).

According to the Washington Post, Catholic Charities protested the December vote that made same-sex marriage legal in D.C., and has threatened not to renew its contracts with the city. The nation's capital provides $22 million every year to Catholic Charities for social services programs.

The charity had threatened to pull out of DC entirely if this issue could not be resolved. And this charity does a great deal of work in DC.

There are some who would suggest that the best course might be to rid the country of any connection between faith groups and federal funds. Yet, inner city churches, serving the poorest of the poor have been able (with federal help) to continue serving a constituency that the government may miss entirely. They offer programs promoting nutrition, dealing with addiction, spousal abuse, preventative health care, mental illness, child care and so much more. With the declining economy, can we afford not to support these groups?

Personally, I want my government to help social service wherever it can. And if that means enabling religious or neighborhood groups, fine. But I don't want my government blackmailed by any group that threatens to take its football home if the government doesn't play their way. And, on the other hand of what must be twenty hands by now, I never want my government telling me what I have to believe. But I want to be able to be hired regardless of my sexual preference or opinion about abortion.

Saad Mohammad Ali's story is told by philly.com

He had volunteered for six months at World Relief, helping the agency resettle arriving Iraqi refugees, when a manager suggested he apply for an Arabic-speaking case worker job. The 42-year-old...had been an interpreter for the U.S. government in Iraq before coming to the U.S. two years ago - himself as a refugee. With a degree in statistics, strong English skills and basic knowledge of American culture, [he]could help his arriving countrymen... But a few days after he applied for the position last December, the Muslim and father of three got an unexpected call from the same manager at World Relief: She was sorry, she told him, but the agency couldn't offer him the job because he is not Christian.

There are some who would say that because an organization accepts federal funds, it should accept federal hiring practices at all levels. World Relief receives an estimated 70% of their expenses from the government.

Dive in folks. This sea is teeming with opinions. This post is just an opening stab at the issue. There is much more to say. How would you say it?


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