President Obama has picked a prominent church-state expert to head the administration’s outreach to faith-based groups, White House officials said Wednesday, a choice that comes as the administration faces several legal standoffs involving religious freedom, contraception and gay rights.
Melissa Rogers, the new director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, replaces Joshua DuBois. DuBois is a young pastor who provided Obama with daily spiritual quotations and was praised for helping coordinate faith communities doing social service work with government agencies.
The officials who confirmed the appointment asked to be anonymous because it has not yet been announced publicly.
Rogers is a well-known centrist on some of the hot-button issues facing the White House, including how to juggle religious freedom protections with policy goals like expanding access to contraception and providing same-sex couples with full legal equality.
“Melissa has been something of the White House crossing guard, if not the traffic cop,” said Nathan Diament, public policy head for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Diament served with Rogers on an advisory panel of faith leaders Obama created when he came to office. Obama picked Rogers as the panel’s chair. Among the issues Rogers focused on there were whether faith groups partnering with the government could discriminate in whom they hire (only picking staff of their own faith) and whether publicly funded social service 1programs can display religious icons.
Perhaps the biggest brewing church-state issue is how to protect religious businesses and individuals who don’t wish to affirm same-sex marriage while also protecting the rights of same-sex couples.
The White House is in the midst of reviewing whether the president should issue an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, and conservative faith groups are watching closely to see how big an exemption objectors will get.
The White House is also facing dozens of lawsuits from mostly Catholic groups over its health care law, which requires most faith groups — houses of worship are exempt — to make contraception available to employees. It broadened its exemption, but not enough for a number of groups including multiple Catholic dioceses and universities.
Rogers, a Baptist, was among those who warned the White House about the conflict and urged finding ways to protect objectors.
“I have seen Melissa’s keen intellect, deep knowledge and firm commitment to religious liberty,” said Diament, who represents the Orthodox Jewish movement.
Rogers’s appointment was also praised by a range of faith voices, from the ACLU to prominent conservative megapastor Joel Hunter.
The Christian Post reported Wednesday that Rogers has led several common ground efforts between religious liberals and conservatives on the issue of protecting religious freedom.
Rogers has led a religion and public affairs center at Wake Forest University Divinity School and served as a fellow at the Brookings Institution. She also was general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The faith-based office was established under the Bush Administration to ease partnerships between faith groups, which provide a huge swath of America’s social service, and the government. It was expanded under the Obama administration to include branches in multiple agencies, from the Small Business Administration to the Agriculture Department.
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this story.