Federal Faith-Based Office Less Controversial, But Still Stirs Discussion

The faith-based initiative established with such fanfare by President George W. Bush isn’t in the headlines much anymore. Contrary to reports of its demise, the program, now called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is alive, though configured somewhat differently under a more secular minded Democratic administration than it was under Bush, a born-again evangelical Christian.

“We’re very busy and we’re going strong, and we try to be very thoughtful about important issues that arise in this area,” said Melissa Rogers, the First Amendment lawyer who heads the faith-based office in the Obama White House.

She took over in March 2013 from Joshua DuBois, a Princeton graduate and Pentecostal minister who was 26 years old when Barack Obama brought him to the White House straight from the campaign trail. After four tumultuous years marked by disputes with religious groups regarding contraceptive coverage, Obama tapped Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School, to run the office.

A seasoned professional with a talent for understanding and accommodating differing viewpoints, Rogers holds a 10:30 a.m. call each weekday with her counterparts throughout the administration.

The initial goal of what was called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was to embed a faith-based office in all 15 cabinet departments. Today, there are faith-based offices at a dozen departments and agencies: Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, Labor, Education, Small Business, Health and Human Services, State Department, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

According to a White House official, dedicated staff are also at the EPA and Peace Corps. The Corporation for National and Community Service does related work.

The original goal of the faith-based office envisioned by Bush was to level the playing field for religious groups to compete for federal dollars as long as they respect the separation of church and state and don’t use the money to proselytize.

John Dilulio, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, launched the office for Bush. Dilulio had made a name for himself advocating government support for religious charities. A Democrat, he left after just six months, later explaining that while he had the highest respect for Bush, staffers he derided as “Mayberry Machiavellis” had politicized the administration’s signature initiative.

“There was always dynamic tension,” said Jim Towey, who succeeded Dilulio as director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006. “Armchair First Amendment people” were always threatening lawsuits, as Towey describes the critics. When Bush campaigned for re-election in 2004, there were allegations that federal grants to religious groups were directed to key swing states.

Given all the flak, Towey was thrilled when Obama announced that he would retain the faith-based office. “I thought that was great. He was well within his rights to have stuck it in the Smithsonian.” After that initial euphoria, Towey reversed course, now saying he is so disappointed in the Obama administration’s stance on religious liberty issues, “I should have closed the door when I left.”

He calls the office a “faith-based farce,” and said Obama has “miniaturized it into irrelevance.” He cites a “double standard” when Obama did a conference call with African-American pastors to push for passage of the Affordable Care Act, and there was “not a peep of protest” when the call was organized by the faith-based office. “If President Bush had asked me to arrange a meeting with Evangelicals to build support for the Iraq War, there would have been an uproar.”

Towey’s views reflect his current position as the president and CEO of Ave Maria University in Florida, where he is in the forefront of those challenging the administration’s policy on including contraceptives as part of health care.

Before Obama took office he created a task force to advise him on possible changes to bring the interfaith office more into line with the U.S. Constitution. Among the religious leaders asked to serve was the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, then president of the Interfaith Alliance and a vocal critic of Bush’s faith initiative.

“They (the Bush administration) certainly were successful in getting taxpayer money into religious institutions where that money didn’t belong in my opinion,” Gaddy said. “I’m dogmatic about no entanglement between religion and government institutions, and this was a clear violation of that.”

Among the issues the task force tackled was the concern among religious groups that if they take government money, they are then forced to open their employment practices to those who don’t share their beliefs. The administration eventually drew a line to exempt those with ministerial duties as opposed to service providers.

While he still thinks a faith-based office doesn’t belong in a secular government, Gaddy has become something of a fan. “I’m not against faith. I’ve been a minister for 57 years,” he said. “One of the good things that happened in the initial rush after President Bush did this, everybody would go to this office and think they’d get funding for all kinds of ministries. They found it wasn’t that easy. There were conditions they had to meet.”

He has high praise for Rogers and the administration-wide initiative she oversees. “The person who runs that office now is by far the best and most sensitive person regarding the fusion of religious institutions and government institutions. She is a great First Amendment lawyer specializing in religious freedom issues…It doesn’t seem to be as political as it was in the Bush administration.”

Major faith-based organizations also commend Rogers for running an open and accessible office. Lt. Colonel Ron Busroe, the Salvation Army’s National Secretary of Community Relations and Development, said he’s met with Obama three times under her watch, including once with his national commander for 20 minutes in the Oval Office.

He checks in regularly with Rogers and recently called to share what The Salvation Army was doing to address the violence associated with a wave of police shootings. Earlier this year, the White House Office on Drug Policy had called Busroe to talk about the growing epidemic of prescription drug and heroin abuse. The Salvation Army runs the largest free drug and alcohol residential program in the country.

“We had a good conversation about that, and we continue to get a lot of government funding,” he said. Federal funds are some 8 percent of the Salvation Army’s national budget, or $350 million.

“We’re comfortable with what we get. We’re comfortable with the process. We’re certainly aware there are many problems from the evangelical perspective where they feel dismissed by the president and administration. We’ve not found this. Melissa (Rogers) works very hard at meeting with people and figuring out how to help people,” said Busroe.

Rogers tracked him down in Slovenia last year where he was visiting his daughter to fill him in on Obama’s executive order banning LGBT discrimination in federal contracts, and how it intersects with religious considerations in hiring and firing. It’s not about veto power, he said, “It’s about making sure when directives come down, they understand the impact they have on faith-based organizations.”

The conflict between the administration and some faith-based groups, notably the Conference of U.S. Bishops, regarding health care policy and contraception is well known but hasn’t hobbled other outreach efforts. Patricia Cole, senior vice president at Catholic Charities USA, said in an email that since the departure of DuBois, Obama’s original faith-based office director, they have worked with Rogers as “a valuable resource and a vehicle for connections” within the administration especially on refugee resettlement and disaster relief for vulnerable populations, and faith-based contracting, which was the original purpose of the office.

“We continue to appreciate the relationship with that office and the staff over the past two administrations,” Cole wrote. And, that’s the key. A faith-based initiative seen 16 years ago as a controversial experiment blurring church and state is now as much a feature of White House courting as any other interest group.