May 20, 2012

Why Do We Still Have an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives?

faith-based and community initiativesDo you ever have one of those moments of clarity where you look at something almost everyone else seems to accept without thinking about it and ask yourself, "What the hell?" I just had one. Although I am sure the content will not surprise you at all, I'd like to share it anyway.

Here in the United States, a nation founded as a secular democracy (or at least a republic), we have an office of faith-based initiatives right in the White House. What the hell?

Former President George W. Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) in 2001 via two executive orders which bypassed Congress. In 2005, U.S. taxpayers contributed $47 million to the Salvation Army through the OFBCI (AlterNet). The Salvation Army then fired 18 employees for refusing to identify gay co-workers, report which church they attend, and/or participate in a sectarian pledge "proclaiming Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord." This happened right here in the U.S., where we supposedly have separation of church and state. In fact, a federal judge ruled "that a religious group can hire and fire employees on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices, even if their salaries come from taxpayer funds."

Let that sink in for a moment. How is it possible that we have allowed this? And more to the point, how is it that we continue to allow it?

In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, Obama promised to reform the OFBCI, fixing the part about how religious organizations receiving taxpayer money could hire and fire based on religion and bigotry. It did not take him long to break this promise. Despite being asked about it as recently as 2011, little progress toward reform has been evident.

Susan Jacoby wrote the following in a 2009 op-ed for The New York Times:
Nearly everyone now takes for granted the wisdom, constitutionality and inevitability of some form of federal financing for community social services run by religious groups. Who anymore can imagine that the United States managed to exist for over 200 years without the government providing any direct aid to faith and its works?
That remains a damn good question and one we should still be asking each and every day as long as this office exists. The OFBCI, since renamed the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is right there in the White House of the United States for all to see. How is this possible?

As Jacoby noted,
It is truly dismaying that amid all the discussion about President Obama’s version of faith-based community initiatives, there has been such a widespread reluctance to question the basic assumption that government can spend money on religiously based enterprises without violating the First Amendment.
It is time to rekindle this debate. It is time for us all to wake up and ask "What the hell?"

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