Leap of Faith

Sunday, March 29, 2009

ON THE campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama pledged to keep government funds from faith-based groups that hire only those who share the same beliefs. President Obama has now set up the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a continuation of President George W. Bush's initiative, and has kept in place Bush-era provisions that allow faith-based groups to discriminate in hiring. The White House has said that hiring decisions will be reviewed case by case; in the meantime, Mr. Obama has created a commission to study and report back on how the faith-based initiative should be structured over the long term.

Critics of church-state entanglements are understandably furious that Mr. Obama appears to have backed away from his campaign promise. To be sure, the president is acting within a confused regulatory context: While faith-based social-service groups that accept direct government funding are prohibited from using government dollars to proselytize to recipients of its charity, there is no such bright line when it comes to hiring.

Religious organizations that take no government money are exempt by law from federal rules that bar discrimination on the basis of religion. Those that accept government aid face a mishmash of rules that accompany different funding streams. Some of them expressly protect the right to hire only those of the same faith; others expressly prohibit this practice; yet others are silent on the matter. Although the Bush Justice Department concluded in 2007 that the government risks violating existing law if it denies funds to faith-based groups that hire only religious adherents, no court has definitively weighed in on the matter.

Mr. Obama has no power to unilaterally change statutes and faith-based programs created by Congress. But he has broad flexibility to dictate how money that flows from his White House initiative is doled out. He should insist that groups that accept funds from his initiative abide by anti-discrimination laws. If this proves too onerous for some groups, they should simply not accept the money.

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