February 04, 2010

Obama Draws Fire for Remarks On 'Faith-Based Initiative'

President Obama praised the work of religious charities in a speech today and said he has tried to improve how the government supports their charitable efforts.

But civil-liberties groups criticized his administration's "faith-based initiative," saying Mr. Obama has yet to fulfill his promise to place better safeguards against proselytization and religious discrimination.

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Mr. Obama focused on how religion can help bring civility to political debates, but also applauded Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and other faiths that are responding to the earthquake in Haiti.

He said such compassion should be harnessed for everyday disasters, like hunger and poverty. He also said that liberals have started to embrace the idea that religious groups and other private efforts can play a major role in fighting social problems.

There is an "increasing recognition among progressives that government can't solve all of our problems, and that talking about values like responsible fatherhood and healthy marriages are integral to any antipoverty agenda," the president said.

At the end of his speech, Mr. Obama said his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which he officially announced at last year's prayer meeting, has helped to steer government grants to important religious and secular charitable work.

"We've slashed red tape and built effective partnerships on a range of uses, from promoting fatherhood here at home to spearheading interfaith cooperation abroad," he said. "And through that office we've turned the faith-based initiative around to find common ground among people of all beliefs, allowing them to make an impact in a way that's civil and respectful of difference and focused on what matters most."

But a coalition of civil libertarians, left-leaning religious groups, and others challenged Mr. Obama's statement.

"The White House and all the federal agencies are still operating under all the inadequate rules and insufficient safeguards imposed by the previous administration," the coalition said in a letter to the president that was released to the public.

The letter was signed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, and 22 other organizations.

Their key concern is that Mr. Obama has not fulfilled a pledge he made while campaigning for president that he would not allow religious groups that receive government money for social services to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

Churches, synagogues, and other religious congregations are exempt from some federal antidiscrimination rules, but experts disagree whether that extends to groups that receive government grants or contracts.

In 2009 Mr. Obama formed an advisory council of religious and nonprofit leaders to examine questions about his faith-based office.

In its letter, the coalition praised the council's efforts, but said so far it has not dealt with the hiring issue adequately.

Read The Chronicle's article about the advisory council.