New White House Guidelines for Faith Groups

Today, on the National Day of Prayer, President Obama issued a proclamation that said, in part:

“We give thanks for our democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience. Let us pray for all the citizens of our great Nation, particularly those who are sick, mourning, or without hope, and ask God for the sustenance to meet the challenges we face as a Nation. May we embrace the responsibility we have to each other, and rely on the better angels of our nature in service to one another. Let us be
humble in our convictions, and courageous in our virtue. Let us pray for those who are suffering around the world, and let us be open to opportunities to ease that suffering.”

These lofty words come on the heels of new guidelines issued by the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships for organizations that seek to “ease suffering” with funding from the federal government. The 50-page report clarifies recommendations made by two inter-faith advisory councils and includes “suggested answers” to commonly asked questions that may be asked about such programs.

The advisory councils were made up of diverse groups of leaders, both religious and secular, Melissa Rogers, the first council’s chairperson, said in a White House blog entry.

“While there are serious differences among these leaders on some church-state issues, the group was able to unite around a call for certain reforms of the partnerships the government forms with religious and secular nonprofits,” wrote Rogers. She outlined those reforms as follows:

1. “Standards regarding the relationship between religion and government are monitored and enforced in ways that avoid excessive entanglement between religious bodies and governmental entities.”

2. “Decisions about federal grants are free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization or lack thereof.”

3. “Beneficiaries of federally funded social services may receive services from a nonreligious provider if they object to receiving services from a religious provider.”

4. “Providers are given detailed and practical guidance regarding the principle that any explicitly religious activities they offer must be clearly separated, in time or location, from programs that receive direct federal support; subsidized with purely private funds, and completely voluntary for social service beneficiaries.”

5. “Social service intermediaries that disburse federal funds are instructed about their special obligations, and recipients of subawards are made aware of the church-state standards that apply to their use of federal aid.”

6. “Plans are developed to train government employees and grant recipients on the church-state rules that apply to these partnerships.”

7. “Regulations, guidance documents, and policies that have implications for faith-based and neighborhood organizations are posted online, along with lists of organizations receiving federal financial assistance.”

The first interfaith advisory council issued recommendations in March 2010. This report offers additional guidance, Rogers said in her post.

Writing for Religion News Service, Adelle Banks said the guidance “breaks little new ground,” “leaves critical questions unanswered,” and “does not resolve the issue of religious groups’ ability to discriminate in hiring and firing,” according to “church-state watchdogs.”

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for example, told Banks that the guidance “falls short.”

“A fundamentalist Christian church can still run a publicly funded social service program and hang out a sign that says, ‘Government job opening: No Catholics, Jews, Muslims or Atheists need apply,'” said Lynn.

There go those “fundamentalist” oppressors again. Everyone knows social service programs run by “Catholics, Jews, Muslims, or Atheists” would never discriminate against them.

What do you think?

Will the new guidelines impact your church’s or ministry’s outreach?