By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
ZANESVILLE, Ohio, July 1 -- Sen. Barack Obama, seeking to reach out to religious voters, proposed strengthening the White House program assisting faith-based social service organization Tuesday, while insisting that those groups not discriminate against aid recipients or aid workers.
Obama's proposal for a $500 million-a-year Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships would also create 1 million slots for summer jobs and education programs.
"I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits, and I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up," the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said after touring the Eastside Community Ministry. "What I'm saying is that we all have to work together -- Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever alike -- to meet the challenges of the 21st century."
In Zanesville, Obama (Ill.) did not shy away from professing his beliefs.
"I didn't grow up in a particularly religious household," he said. "But my experience in Chicago showed me how faith and values could be an anchor in my life. And in time, I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community, that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."
George W. Bush first proposed federal assistance to religious organizations during his 2000 presidential campaign. But Bush's faith-based initiative has been mired in controversy. Its first director, John DiIulio, quit the White House and charged that the administration was stocked with "Mayberry Machiavellis" more interested in politics than policy.
Another program director, David Kuo, wrote a scathing tell-all book recounting how Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was used to advance Republican political objectives. Even most critics, however, concede that the program has increased the number of faith-based groups winning access to federal dollars and has lifted what in some cases were discriminatory policies against religious groups.
Obama aides, however, say the current program has not worked. Funding has not reached the levels Bush promised, and the program, Obama contends, has been too bureaucratic, including onerous training for groups who wish to apply.
Those aides said an Obama administration would get tough on groups that discriminate in hiring practices and doling out assistance. The groups would have to abide by federal hiring laws that reject discrimination based on race, sex and religion. Obama said he supports federal legislation that would extend those protections to gay people as well, a flash point with some religious organizations that say hiring or assisting gays would run counter to their beliefs.
Under Obama's proposal, groups could use federal funds only to assist people in need, not people from a certain background or religion. Nor could federal funds be used to proselytize or spread religious beliefs.
"This is about providing equal treatment, but not special treatment," an Obama aide said.
DiIulio endorsed Obama's proposal as a "principled, prudent and problem-solving vision" for the future of faith-based social service.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said he is "disappointed that any presidential candidate would want to continue a failed policy of the Bush administration."
Obama's speech Wednesday at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs will be on service, the third component of values week -- faith, patriotism and service.