By Nate Hennagin

Tomorrow, November 18 at 10:30, Americans United’s own Barry Lynn will testify at a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing Faith-Based Initiatives. The hearing will focus on the new Executive Order signed today by President Obama and the issue of employment discrimination in government funded positions.

Americans United is opposed to the Faith-Based Initiative. Giving money to religious organizations to implement social service programs for the most vulnerable in our society raises many concerns with the Establishment Clause. Back in 2008, during a campaign speech in Zanesville, OH, then-candidate Barack Obama seemed to share our concerns:

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that 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 their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

Despite this campaign promise, President Obama didn’t immediately change the Faith-Based Initiative. Instead, he created the Advisory Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships consisting of 25 mostly religious leaders to study the issue. The final report of the Council included twelve recommendations on how to reform the Faith-Based Initiative, such as the need to disclose where money was going to and ensuring religious liberty for beneficiaries.

Today, President Obama issued an executive order that made many necessary changes to the Initiative, adopting all of the Council’s consensus recommendations. However, we were disappointed that there were other important church-state violations that this executive order overlooked.

First is the issue of separate incorporation. We believe that, in order to protect religious organizations and to ensure government money doesn’t fund religion; houses of worship should establish a separate, affiliated entity in order to partner with the government in providing secular social services. Despite a majority on the Council recommending this, the executive order did not address the issue. For example, groups like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and the Jewish Social Service Agency are all separate corporations that provide these services.

Second is the issue of iconography. The executive order allows religious organizations to display overtly religious symbols in the room where taxpayer-funded services are provided. For example, a religious organization could hang a cross on a wall at a counseling center or have a “Jesus saves” sign posted in the soup kitchen. AU opposed this because we believe that beneficiaries should not have to choose between accepting government services in a place that makes them uncomfortable and going without these services.

Lastly is the issue of employment discrimination. Unfortunately, this issue was not even discussed by the Council. Although the White House has said that it is reviewing the issue, we’ve seen no action on it, despite the President’s clear campaign promise. So, as it stands right now, religious organizations that take federal funds for social services can discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, just like they could during the Bush Administration.

All of these issues will be up for discussion during tomorrow’s hearing and we hope that it will provide some oversight into the faith-based initiative. Joining Barry to testify will be Melissa Rogers and Douglas Laycock, both noted legal scholars in this field. AU and our coalition partners have pushed for this hearing to take place since the beginning of the Obama Administration, so we are happy that it is finally happening and that we are taking part in it.

Don’t miss Barry’s testimony at the hearing on November 18! You can watch the webcast online by going here.