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Obama's Faith-Based Initiatives

By Dan Froomkin
12:46 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

When it comes to polarizing issues like abortion rights and the separation of church and state, is there a way to split the difference? President Obama sought to carve out a middle ground on both issues yesterday, with only limited success.

Michelle Boorstein and Kimberly Kindy write in The Washington Post: "President Obama yesterday announced the creation of his faith-based outreach office, expanding its agenda beyond funding social programs to work on policies aimed at strengthening family life and reducing abortion....

"Obama's move more fully formalizes the partnerships between the federal government and faith groups that first began under President Bill Clinton and was expanded by President George W. Bush. But where Bush used the faith office primarily for funding programs -- drawing criticism that he was mainly assisting his political supporters -- Obama said he wants to use the office for policy guidance, as well."

Rob Stein writes in The Washington Post: "In a series of moves, he is attempting to nudge the debate away from the morality and legality of abortion and toward a goal he hopes both sides can endorse: decreasing the number of women who terminate their pregnancies by addressing the reasons they might choose the procedure.

"The strategy is being met by deep skepticism from many prominent antiabortion activists, but it has been embraced by some others as well as by leading abortion rights activists, who hope it could fundamentally reshape one of the nation's most intransigent political stalemates."

Peter Wallsten and Duke Helfand write in the Los Angeles Times: "It seemed like a firm campaign promise. Barack Obama pledged to continue President Bush's faith-based office in the White House, but with a key change: Groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

"On Thursday, however, as President Obama disclosed the details of his faith-based program, he left the controversial Bush policy in place....

"The hiring issue was a major point of controversy between Bush and Democrats. The president signed an executive order in 2002 that paved the way for allowing federal grants to certain groups that hired only people of like-minded religions. Supporters of the policy argued that a small Christian organization, for example, could not operate according to its ideals if it were forced to hire non-Christians.

"Obama clearly singled out the policy during a campaign speech in July, declaring that '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 once he won the election, religious conservatives began lobbying Obama and his transition team on the issue. It was the subject of intense internal debate, according to participants."

Other than not explicitly banning discrimination by groups that take federal money, the panel Obama created by executive order yesterday did sound just like what he outlined in that July speech. And at the time, he said: "[M]ake no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles."

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, had this to say in a statement: "What we are seeing today is significant -- a president giving his favored clergy a governmental stamp of approval. There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion – or religious leaders meddling in federal policy – through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president’s chosen religious leaders."

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