Correction to This Article
The article misattributed comments about a 2007 Bush administration memo on religious organizations' eligibility for government funding. It was a letter from the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State that called the memo "flatly erroneous" and "legally suspect," not Justice Department nominee Dawn Johnsen or department lawyer Martin Lederman.

Obama Cautious on Faith-Based Initiatives

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Candidate Barack Obama drew little attention during last year's presidential campaign when he ventured into the thorny territory of church and state.

While President George W. Bush had expanded government contracts to faith-based groups, Obama promised to end that arrangement if the groups proselytized to the needy they served, or hired only members of that faith.

Today, that campaign pledge -- along with other complex questions of religion and government -- are posing something of a dilemma for President Obama, as he tries to balance increasing pressure from the left to renounce Bush-era policies against a desire to find common ground on social issues.

Civil liberties advocates have pressed Obama to keep the promise he made in July 2008 when he told an audience in Zanesville, Ohio: "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."

But in office, Obama has proceeded far more cautiously. He has reinforced the need for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and dispatched Joshua DuBois, a young Pentecostal minister and an aide on Obama's Senate staff, to reach out to many of the same religious groups whose receipt of substantial federal grants in the Bush administration raised controversy.

Obama has pushed to the Justice Department the most vexing question: whether religious organizations receiving government contracts can reject job candidates on the basis of their faith.

Lawyers in the department's Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the executive branch, are considering a 2007 Bush-era religious freedom memo that carved out an exemption in employment discrimination law, allowing the Justice Department to award $1.5 million to a Christian charity for a gang-prevention effort, according to a legal source. The question, according to a Justice Department source, is not on the front burner for an office grappling with urgent national security and legislative issues.

"Before the Bush years, religious organizations that got money just assumed they had to hire the most qualified person and couldn't proselytize," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which has written Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to demand action. The letter "presents the golden opportunity to the Department of Justice to reverse clearly erroneous past policy and to start looking at a new, constitutionally based framework."

A Polarizing Issue

Some who cast doubt on the Bush administration memo, calling it "flatly erroneous" and "legally suspect," are now aligned with the Obama administration. They include Dawn Johnsen, who has been nominated to lead the OLC, and Martin Lederman, a deputy in the office since January.

Even as groups including Americans United and the ACLU urge Obama to draw a bright line between government funding and religious activity, it remains unclear how sharp a break the president wants on a subject that polarizes audiences as well as many swing voters.

Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, said Obama has reinforced "his commitment to ensuring that we partner with faith-based organizations in a way that is consistent with our Constitution, laws and values. The administration will continue to evaluate these difficult legal questions as they arise in particular cases or programs."

That hews closely to an executive order Obama issued in February. It said authorities would ensure that "services paid for with federal government funds are provided in a manner consistent with fundamental constitutional commitments guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws and the free exercise of religion and prohibiting laws respecting an establishment of religion."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company