President Obama fulfilled one campaign promise and violated another recently with an executive order revamping the White House office for religion-based and neighborhood programs.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama made clear that he would extend the faith-based initiative started by former President George Bush to help social service programs run by religious and other charitable groups obtain federal grants and contracts. But he also pledged that unlike Mr. Bush, he would provide meaningful safeguards to avoid the blurring of church-state boundaries, including a firm rule barring discrimination on the basis of religion. The rule is notably missing from his new decree.
Speaking last July in Ohio, Mr. Obama set forth his “basic principles” for assuring constitutional balance. “First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use the 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 religion,” he said. “Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”
He said taxpayer dollars should not be used to advance partisan interests, and there was reassuring language about maintaining the separation of church and state in Mr. Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast preceding the issuance of his order, and in the order itself. But it would have been a lot more reassuring if the directive had actually revoked Mr. Bush’s 2002 executive order authorizing religious-oriented recipients of federal funding to hire and fire on religious grounds.
We suspect that Mr. Obama was not particularly proud of this omission. He chose to sign his order away from the view of television cameras or an audience. Joshua DuBois, the Pentecostal minister selected by Mr. Obama to lead his initiative, says the president is “committed to nondiscrimination,” and that the executive order “provides a process” for case-by-case review to decide if grants to faith-based organizations are “consistent with law.”
What process? The executive order says only that White House officials “may” seek Justice Department guidance if questions arise about particular grants. Discrimination by faith-based grantees should be barred.
The case-by-case review seems destined to confuse as much as enlighten. And it is hardly the clear commitment to proper employment practices Mr. Obama voiced as a candidate, and the Constitution requires.