17 November 2010 - Washington, DC
President Obama has signed an Executive Order based on recommendations of a taskforce of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The aim of the Order is to make significant improvements to federally funded partnerships between the government and faith-based and neighborhood organizations by strengthening the constitutional and legal footing the partnerships and providing "greater support and clarity to these important organizations." The recommendations were unanimously approved by the Advisory Council, which is "a group of church-state experts from across the ideological spectrum."
The Executive Order creates a first of its kind interagency working group of federal agencies, co-chaired by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This organization will submit to the President "a report containing recommendations necessary to ensure that agency regulations and guidance documents are consistent with the fundamental principles of the Order." It is hoped that greater uniformity in rules will "aid in the effort to ensure fidelity to constitutional principles and greater clarity for the nation's hardworking nonprofits as they serve people in need in line with relevant guidelines."
(Quotations in the paragraphs above are to the White House press release. Sources for the information in the paragraphs below include articles from Catholic News Agency, ABC News, and the New York Times.)
Attorney Jim Towey, who headed the Office of Faith-Based and Communitive Initiatives under President George W. Bush, asserts that the new order is unnecessary, noting that that no legal challenges or questions have been raised in the eight years that the Bush guidelines have been in place. Towey asserts, in fact, that the new regulations will have a "chilling effect" – dissuading religious groups who might otherwise want to partner with the government but would not be willing to divert time and energy away from their charitable missions to attend to the reporting and compliance requirements of the new guidelines.
Other critics assert that the new order does not go far enough in ensuring separation of church and state, as it does not ease concerns about preferential treatment for religious groups. Critics such as including the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Rev. Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian rights group, note that the order does not prohibit federal funding for groups who practice discrimination in hiring. In this, say critics, the president fails to fulfill a campaign promise.