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Opinion: Faith-based Hiring Issue Proves Distracting

The faith-based office has become sidetracked on marginal issues.

In campaign 2008, candidate Barack Obama pledged an "all hands on deck" approach to meeting human needs. His improved approach would include a wider range of faith-related groups in more extensive policy deliberations and, pointedly, a stronger and "de-politicized" faith-based initiative.

At its maximum, "all hands on deck" implies aggressive work to provide all kinds of help – direct government aid, indirect government aid, and enhanced private aid – to the full range of faith-based groups. It would involve incentives for philanthropy and charitable contributions, and ways to get all forms of appropriate aid to any effective faith-related group. It would also involve encouraging faith-related groups to apply to the full range of social service programs available, not a smaller range of politically favored ideas. And, in regard to the hot-button hiring issue, it would mean figuring out ways to help those groups which wanted to keep their rights to use religious criteria in hiring decisions: Providing direct federal aid if the Obama administration deemed it appropriate; helping find sources of indirect aid if they ruled such discrimination inappropriate (as the campaign stated it would do).

So far, the pledge is not fully redeemed. Rather, the Obama Administration seems caught in the web of misunderstandings that always seems to follow the faith-based initiative.

First, the new President's idea to create a 25-person advisory group to have input in faith-related policies is encountering inevitable conflicts. The 25 members have diverse views (and not a few large egos) – not a good recipe to get quick consensus on lingering controversies. As such, they are giving up trying to achieve a consensus on hiring rights, and instead punting that to a "case-by-case" analysis by lawyers in the White House and the Department of Justice.

The case-by-case decision process gives either a partial and somewhat surprising victory for the hiring rights side, or, more likely, a series of small, quiet, but cumulative losses. Both a majority of the advisory committee (and almost certainly nearly all the political hires at Justice and in the White House involved in the matter) appear to be on the other side, against "hiring discrimination" as that side describes it. The case-by-case approach is probably a way to build a set of precedents limiting hiring rights step-by-step, and then in a few years decide that the "case law" that they've created pretty much takes away most hiring rights. To take away some of this sting for some groups, compensatory steps such as encouraging volunteering and simplifying 501c3 designation are likely. But these moves will not be much proof of enthusiastic support for faith, but rather incentives for government distance from or dilution of faith – getting such groups to rely on private effort or reconfigure themselves in order to be eligible for tighter federal rules. While changes along these lines do follow stated policy, they are not generally constitutionally required.

There are other problems, too. First, while candidate Obama promised clarity on rules related to faith-based groups, the "case-by-case" decision is certainly not that. It will, rather, create more, not fewer, questions, particularly over the short- and mid-term, over what can be funded and which groups should apply. Second, while the administration has spent time and political capital on filling slots on the 25-person advisory committee, critical hiring decisions for the central faith office and the many satellites in federal agencies goes slowly. It is these in-agency employees that will work full-time, every day, to implement Obama's faith-based vision: momentum and institutional memory trickles away as these positions stay open. Third, there seem to be some troubling distractions for the few already hired employees in the faith-based field; they seem to be handling questions of which church the Obamas will attend and where they will show up on Easter Sunday. These personal issues are far removed from the core functions of the office.

The record so far shows that the Obama campaign got some pretty bad early advice on the faith-based controversies and has not yet overcome it. On the particular point of hiring rights, it looks like advisors to the campaign said hiring rights were not all that important to key Democratic constituencies. Now that the heat of the campaign is over, the office is finding out differently as a lot of groups–particularly many within the African-American community and the Jewish community–do have concerns with this. On other points, while it was commonly asserted that the Bush Administration was ambiguous or even disingenuous on the proselytizing, serving, and "separate by time or place" rules for inherently religious and other activities, that really was not the case, especially in the latter years. The guidelines were always fairly clear, and became clearer as the Bush Administration continued in office and improved its oversight. It is unfortunate the early 2001 rhetoric stayed alive through 2008. It forced the Obama campaign and now the new administration to poorly allocate its time and attention.

Douglas Koopman is a political science professor at Calvin College in Michigan. He is co-author of Pews, Prayers, and Participation: Religion and Civic Responsibility.

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