Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Obama Criticizes, Announces Plan to Extend Bush' Faith Based and Community Initiative Program

In the wake of a two day White House Conference on President Bush' Community and Faith-Based Initiative and the President's weekly radio address on the topic last weekend, Senator Obama today announced his intention to extend the program should he be elected President: 

Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square. But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups. President Clinton signed legislation that opened the door for faith-based groups to play a role in a number of areas, including helping people move from welfare to work. Al Gore proposed a partnership between Washington and faith-based groups to provide more support for the least of these. And President Bush came into office with a promise to "rally the armies of compassion," establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

But what we saw instead was that the Office never fulfilled its promise. Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the Office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed.

Well, I still believe it's a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular. But it has to be a real partnership - not a photo-op. That's what it will be when I'm President. I'll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This Council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart - it will be a critical part of my administration.

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea - so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, 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. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

With these principles as a guide, my Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will strengthen faith-based groups by making sure they know the opportunities open to them to build on their good works. Too often, faith-based groups - especially smaller congregations and those that aren't well connected - don't know how to apply for federal dollars, or how to navigate a government website to see what grants are available, or how to comply with federal laws and regulations. We rely too much on conferences in Washington, instead of getting technical assistance to the people who need it on the ground. What this means is that what's stopping many faith-based groups from helping struggling families is simply a lack of knowledge about how the system works.

Well, that will change when I'm President. I will empower the nonprofit religious and community groups that do understand how this process works to train the thousands of groups that don't. We'll "train the trainers" by giving larger faith-based partners like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services and secular nonprofits like Public/Private Ventures the support they need to help other groups build and run effective programs. Every house of worship that wants to run an effective program and that's willing to abide by our constitution - from the largest mega-churches and synagogues to the smallest store-front churches and mosques - can and will have access to the information and support they need to run that program.

Senator McCain also supports the making of federal grants to religious groups, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, but has not yet spoken out on the issue in any great detail.  It seems to be a no-brainer, at least from a political perspective.  Recall that the proposal is to allow religious charities to compete for federal grants and contracts previously reserved for nonprofit organizations.  Opponents, including some religious organizations, have argued that federal grants to religious charities violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  Without sufficient Congressional support, the President instituted the program on a smaller scale via executive order that prohibited the use of the federal monies for proselytizing.  I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to meet that standard.  The White House's seven year report on the program is available online (click on "The Quiet Revolution" in the right hand column).  According to a WSJ article, Obama alluded to criticisms leveled against President Bush's proposal by Bush's previous Director of the Faith Based and Community Initiative Program. 



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