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Candidate Obama didn’t care for President Bush’s 2002 executive order that allowed faith-based groups to discriminate in hiring and still get federal grants to run social programs. “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,” Obama said in Ohio last July.
So it was somewhat surprising last week when President Obama failed to rescind Bush’s order when he announced the rules for his own White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “President Obama understands he’s at risk of alienating the vast majority of the evangelical community,” Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (and On Faith panelist) told CNN.
Obama’s order did say that hiring rules would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis when there are complaints of discrimination. It’s a commendable way to try to avoid conflict, but if religious groups are going to take Caesar’s money to do God’s work, shouldn’t they abide by Caesar’s anti-discrimination laws?
The 1964 Civil Right Act allows religious organizations to discriminate in hiring. Baptist churches can decide they only want to hire males preachers. Catholic schools can hire only Catholic teachers. And so on. But that was before Bush allowed Baptist churches and Catholic schools to start applying for government grants.
Obama the former community organizer knows that most faith-based organizations are 501(c)3 nonprofits run by people who are motivated by their faith (not by money) to do good works. They don’t discriminate or proselytize when they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house and homeless and serve as their neighbors.
The goal of the new faith-based initiative, Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, “will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line our Founders wisely drew between church and state.”
But this line is blurry. How much blurrier (and more contentious) will it get when millions in federal funds start to flow?
Will the Southern Baptist Convention be allowed to take federal tax dollars to help hurricane victims if they tell them about Jesus while they’re giving them food and water?
Will World Vision be allowed to use federal tax dollars to care for orphans in Muslim or Hindu nations while refusing to hire non-Christians to do the caring?
Will the pastor of First Megachurch of Houston be given federal tax dollars to provide drug counseling for deadbeat dads while preaching and practicing discrimination against homosexuals or atheists or illegal aliens?
If so, many church-state separatists will cry foul. If not, many evangelicals will complain about sectarian discrimination.
There’s a simple and faithful way to solve this problem. If evangelical groups don’t want the federal government telling them what they can or cannot do with federal tax dollars, they shouldn’t take federal funds.
“What does the LORD require of you?” it says in the Book of Micah. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” No federal funds required.
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” Jesus says in the Book of Matthew.
In neither case is government funding required.