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Moving Forward on Faith-based and Neighborhood Advisory Council Recommendations

Melissa Rogers, chair of President Obama’s first Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, discusses new guidance from The White House for implementation of President Obama's Executive Order 13559.

Today the White House is issuing guidance for implementation of President Obama’s Executive Order 13559 setting forth fundamental principles and policymaking criteria for the social service partnerships the government forms with religious and other neighborhood organizations.  With this executive order, President Obama adopted many of the recommendations made by his first Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

 An extremely diverse group of leaders crafted these recommendations, including those representing the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Incarnate Word Foundation, the Interfaith Alliance, the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.  While there are serious differences among these leaders on some church-state issues, the group was able to unite around a call for certain reforms of the partnerships the government forms with religious and secular nonprofits.  

The White House report issued today provides agencies with additional guidance on how to implement these common-ground reforms.  For example, pursuant to the Advisory Council's recommendations, the guidance directs agencies to ensure that:

  • Standards regarding the relationship between religion and government are monitored and enforced in ways that avoid excessive entanglement between religious bodies and governmental entities;
  • Decisions about federal grants are free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization or lack thereof;
  • Beneficiaries of federally funded social services may receive services from a nonreligious provider if they object to receiving services from a religious provider;
  • Providers are given detailed and practical guidance regarding the principle that any explicitly religious activities they offer must be clearly separated, in time or location, from programs that receive direct federal support; subsidized with purely private funds, and completely voluntary for social service beneficiaries;
  • Social service intermediaries that disburse federal funds are instructed about their special obligations, and recipients of subawards are made aware of the church-state standards that apply to their use of federal aid;
  • Plans are developed to train government employees and grant recipients on the church-state rules that apply to these partnerships; and
  • Regulations, guidance documents, and policies that have implications for faith-based and neighborhood organizations are posted online, along with lists of organizations receiving federal financial assistance.

As chair of the President's first Advisory Council, and a member of the Reform of the Office Taskforce, I would like to thank President Obama for embracing many of our recommendations and for this important step to implement them.  The President’s charge to create this detailed report demonstrates his understanding of the fact that these issues require careful consideration as well as his appreciation for freedoms that are cherished by Americans of all faiths and none.  As it forms partnerships to serve people in need, the government must respect church-state separation and religious liberty principles.  I look forward to continuing to work with the administration and other stakeholders to meet those goals.

Melissa Rogers served as chair of President Obama’s first Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  She currently serves as director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School.