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Obama faith-based order makes ‘few changes’ to Bush’s original order

WASHINGTON (BP)–Although much of the religious community feared what President Obama’s recent executive order regarding the faith-based initiative would entail, he made few changes to President Bush’s original executive order, observers said.

“The most important thing to note about the amended EO is how few changes it makes. The principles it sets out are refinements, not alternatives, to the principles of the Bush EO,” Stanley Carlson-Thies, a former associate director in Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, observed in a newsletter.

Rumors that Obama would make drastic changes from the original executive order made some in the religious community apprehensive about what modifications faith-based service providers would have to make to continue to receive funding from the government. Many believed Obama would ban faith-based organizations from considering religious background or seeking agreement with statements of faith when hiring employees.

Obama’s executive order, however, did not even mention the religious hiring controversy. This occurred in spite of his declaration during the 2008 presidential campaign that he was against “discriminatory hiring” for religious groups receiving federal money, though many federally funded programs do not bar religiously based hiring by faith-based organizations.

The executive order, issued Nov. 17, seems mostly to clarify some questions that have been raised about Bush’s order. The new executive order says faith-based organizations will not have to remove religious visuals from the facilities where they perform services. Also, if the service provider is religious in nature, the organization must “provide referrals to alternative providers if the beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization.”

Many on both sides seem somewhat satisfied the executive order doesn’t infringe on religious or civil rights. However, some strict church-state separationists say it doesn’t do enough to keep federal money from funding the mission of religious groups.

Most of the changes are a result of recommendations made earlier this year by the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which included religious and secular leaders on both sides of the political spectrum. Out of this council, a task force of diverse council members and other experts drafted the recommendations, Carlson-Thies said.

“The taskforce and Council labored over many months drafting and redrafting recommendations,” Carlson-Thies said in a newsletter for the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. The alliance works to protect the rights of faith-based organizations, and Carlson-Thies is its president.

Under Bush, the faith-based office was formed primarily to aid faith-based organizations in competing for federal funds to provide social services. This, however, produced criticism from the political left, which said the office was a ploy by the administration to continue gaining support from the religious community and that it crossed the line of separation of church and state.

After being inaugurated in 2009, Obama set out to create an office that would encourage discussion among various religious leaders and focus on specific policy issues. His office’s agenda consists of issues such as inter-religious dialogue, responsible fatherhood, poverty intervention and environmental stewardship.

The future of the faith-based office is still uncertain, but those on both sides say more debate lies ahead over its mission and work.
Hannah Cummings was an intern this fall with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.

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