President Barack Obama started his presidency on Inauguration Day in January 2009 by doing something startling. He included “nonbelievers” when talking about America’s empowering diversity.
Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. (Emphasis added.)
The mention barely registered for most observers, but for secular Americans it was a singular moment of recognition and affirmation, telegraphing (we hoped) that Obama would be a president for us: an evidence-based thinker who would rebuild the wall between church and state that had been so thoroughly assailed by evangelist-in-chief President George W. Bush. And, in the main, Obama’s presidency has been a good one for secular people. Obama’s judicial picks have been generally supportive of a muscular establishment clause. His public-policy stances on such religiously freighted issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research have been generally free of dogma and supportive of science.
But there is one issue where Obama receives failing grades. He went back on a campaign promise to reform how, potentially, billions of dollars in federal grants to faith-based organizations are administered—a lapse that leaves federal money flowing to groups that require the religious fealty of their workforce and leaves secular people out in the cold.
Let’s recap how we got here. In 2001, soon after his inauguration, Bush used his executive powers to establish the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Additional faith-based centers were established within most major federal departments to assist religiously affiliated social-service organizations in gaining access to federal grants.
Reports indicate that over $2 billion per year was distributed to faith-based groups during the Bush years, with more than 98 percent of those grants going to Christian-affiliated groups. Ostensibly, the money was to go for purely secular social-service programs. In reality, there was little oversight policing whether recipients mixed religion into the provision of services. Tax dollars were funneled to evangelical and other conservative religious groups in service of a right-wing culture-war agenda. Money funded abstinence-only sex education, antiabortion crisis pregnancy centers, groups that practiced gay-conversion therapy, and overseas AIDS clinics that disparaged condom use.
Taking this affront to America’s establishment clause principles further, Bush exempted the recipients of this money from federal equal employment opportunity requirements, meaning that they could discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. As the bulk of the funds flowed to Christian groups, tax money could be used to pay for jobs that excluded non-Christians. It was as if taxpayers had paid for signs that said “No Atheists, Muslims, or Jews Need Apply.”
Obama promised he would put a stop to it. “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,” Obama said in a stump speech in July 2008. He wasn’t going to shut down the Faith-Based Initiatives program—which was disappointing—but at least he was going to rid us of that pernicious loophole that allowed religious bias in hiring.
Then, he didn’t.
From what had been an explicit promise, Obama feinted. The question of whether to alter the hiring discrimination rules was a question for the Justice Department, according to the administration.
A memo from the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that wrongly interpreted the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) furnished the justification for this policy. In 2007, the OLC issued a memo instructing that RFRA is “reasonably construed to require” that religiously affiliated employers should receive a blanket exemption from rules barring religious employment discrimination by federal grantees.
The Center for Inquiry was one of 130 groups that signed a letter to Obama in 2015 to denounce that interpretation as baseless. The letter said that if the OLC memo is left in place, it will “tarnish the legacy of your work to advance fairness and equal treatment under the law for all Americans.” Yet it stands.
Obama’s current executive director of the now-named White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is Melissa Rogers, a respected centrist with knowledge and experience and a knack for finding common ground between liberals and conservatives. But even under Rogers, the faith-based money trail has been the subject of scathing reporting for its lack of transparency and grant-awarding to overtly religious programs that promote public policies antithetical to most Democrats. A 2014 report in the Nation titled “Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train” documented how the administration re-upped grants to antigay, anti-condom, antiabortion, and anti–sex-education Bush-era beneficiaries with little accountability. The story’s online version has been updated to early 2015.
The Nation quoted from a book by the late David Kuo, an evangelical Christian who was a pivotal figure in establishing Bush’s faith-based funding scheme. Kuo wrote that the central idea was to direct public money to religious groups who would use it to evangelize. “We knew government couldn’t feed Jesus to people,” the Nation quoted from Kuo’s book, “but if we could get money to private religious groups—virtually all of whom were Christian—we could show them to the dining room.”
This disturbing game plan was made worse by the overall lack of transparency in federal faith-based spending. This opacity persisted under the Obama administration. A July 2015 report by Jacey Rubenstein of Political Research Associates suggests that spending figures are made virtually impossible to find. Of the thirteen federal agencies that now have faith-based centers, only four responded to Rubenstein’s request for information on their faith-based budgets. His efforts led him to the research organization the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which said of the faith-based office budget, “We don’t have the information you requested, nor do any of our experts know of any kind of published source where it can be found.”
Under President Obama, there have been some efforts to reduce the mixing of proselytizing into the provision of services. An executive order issued in 2010 emphasized that beneficiaries cannot be denied federally funded social services if they refuse to participate in religious activities, and they have to be given a nonreligiously affiliated alternative.
But by keeping the hiring-bias policy in place and perpetuating the funding program’s lack of transparency and accountability, Obama is leaving a giant, Bush-sized hole in the wall between church and state. It is a hole that, from a political perspective, will only grow harder to patch.