An Obama administration guidance dealing with "faith-based" funding adds some welcome constitutional safeguards but falls short in other areas, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The 50-page guidance, issued late Friday, requires faith-based agencies that operate government-subsidized social services to generally exclude religion from publicly funded activities and to provide help to all who need it regardless of their beliefs about religion. But it also allows these agencies to offer publicly funded services in locations festooned with religious art, icons and scripture passages, allows the agencies to invite clients to attend privately funded religious events and does not require separate accounts for public and private funds.
Americans United remains disappointed that the entire reform process has failed to address the most pressing faith-based issue of all: religiously based job discrimination. The guidance leaves in place Bush administration rules allowing faith-based agencies to reject qualified job applicants on religious grounds even if the program in question is 100 percent government funded.
Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, "This guidance makes some significant improvements to the Bush faith-based initiative, but it falls far short of what it ought to do. This fails to fully protect the interests of Americans who need help from their government or the rights of taxpayers who don't want their money subsidizing religion.
"And worst of all, this leaves in place Bush rules allowing overt bigotry in government-funded employment," Lynn continued. "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."
Lynn, who served with a White House working group that offered advice on the church-state implications of the faith-based initiative, said he is also concerned that some of the language in the new guidance seems overly focused on giving religious agencies too much leeway in how they operate public social services.
Said Lynn, "There are a lot of loopholes in this guidance, and I fear that some of them are big enough to drive a church bus through."
He noted, for example, that the guidance forbids the use of public funds to buy or distribute devotional materials but also says that staff in federally funded programs may teach about religion and make use of the Bible and other scripture if it's "consistent with the purposes of the program."
Said Lynn, "I think vague language such as that clouds the constitutional issues rather than giving clarity."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.