By Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Pointing to his spiritually-laced campaign rhetoric and outreach to religious groups, liberal faith-based organizations have high expectations that President-elect Barack Obama will increase funding for their activities and warmly welcome their lobbying on poverty, climate change and other issues.
But analysts across the ideological spectrum said that much of what the Obama administration might propose for faith-based organizations is unclear and that the new president could face legal challenges about whether religious groups can discriminate against gay people and those of religions other than their own in hiring.
Liberal faith groups among Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants and progressive evangelicals have felt left out of efforts by President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives over the past eight years and are looking forward to more attention from Obama.
Still, some activists close to Obama say they expect him to seek cooperation from conservative Christian groups, some of which were highly critical of him during the campaign.
"The question is whether white evangelicals, 70 million of them, three-quarters of whom voted for McCain, whether a significant percentage will be willing to cooperate with him on anything," said David Gushee, a well-known evangelical Christian ethicist who heads the group Evangelicals for Human Rights.
Those who do, some analysts said, might risk being tagged as too willing to compromise their beliefs.
Obama raised concerns among some of his supporters this summer when he announced that he would expand Bush's faith-based initiative. That effort helped religious groups compete for federal grants for social service work, but some critics have said it allows government sponsorship of religion. Other critics accused Bush of using the initiative to reward his conservative religious supporters.
Bush issued an executive order allowing groups to receive federal funding even if they hired only people of their own religion. Critics of that move said it allows groups to discriminate and still be rewarded with taxpayers' money.
Obama said this summer that he would not allow religious groups to get federal funding if they discriminate in hiring. But evangelicals close to the Obama team say they are getting signals that the door might still be open to changes. Being required to hire non-Christians would be a deal-breaker even for progressive evangelicals, they say.
"Christian influence is felt not only in direct proselytizing, but in strategies and characters and values of people implementing them," Gushee said. "We think the identity of Christian institutions must be protected, and the main way you do that is by who you hire. So if a condition for getting money is limits on who you hire, most organizations won't play ball."
Beyond hiring is the much larger issue of how engaged Obama will be on faith-based programs. Activists are eager to find out who might lead the administration's efforts and whether funding will expand or even continue at current levels given the economy.
Many say Obama's campaign's faith outreach, unprecedented for a Democrat, shows his commitment. But others say his track record is less clear. Jim Towey, a Democrat who directed the Bush faith-based office from 2002 to 2006, said Obama as senator "was not involved at all" in the initiative, in contrast with other Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
Although Bush's creation of the office and the partisan infighting over it has created a public perception of faith-based outreach and funding as a conservative effort, Towey says, Democrats were always more interested in the idea. Federal support for the program was first put in place by President Bill Clinton in the 1996 welfare reform act.
"Two-thirds of the country's governors have faith-based offices, and they're mostly Democrats. There's plenty of room for a Democratic president to succeed with this, so long as he focuses on the poor and how they're best served," Towey said. But "if he bogs down on fights on religious hiring, it will be a mess."
Beyond faith-based initiatives, church-state experts said battles over same-sex marriage are likely in the new president's first term.
Several analysts said a standoff over the religious rights of business owners who don't wish to rent their restaurant or meeting place to a same-sex couple holding a wedding is an example of a dispute that might soon flare. The president-elect supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
"The marriage wars will be fought for generations if we don't carve out a religious exception," said Seamus Hasson, president of the Becket Fund law firm and author of "The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America."
Church-state experts also note Obama's support of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would expand protections for abortion rights. Pursuing that would trigger a showdown, they say, over whether religious doctors, pharmacists and universities, among others, have a right to an exception.
"Are there issues about which we have serious disagreements? We know so," Richard Cizik, a prominent evangelical lobbyist, said during a post-election conference call organized by the progressive group Faith in Public Life. "But President-elect Obama has said he is interested in finding common ground. And, increasingly, evangelicals are that mentality, and that will make all the difference."