By Michelle Boorstein
One subject is proving too hot to handle for the small groups starting to meet as part of the White House’s hand-picked faith-based advisory council.
The question of whether faith-based groups that receive government money can discriminate in who they hire — only hiring people of their own faith, for example — is proving so explosive that White House officials have removed it from the to-do list of a task force that’s supposed to sift through church-state issues.
The hiring issue would have fit neatly into the agenda of a task force charged with “reform of the faith-based office.” That group was formed to debate and make recommendations to the president on constitutional issues that arise for faith-based social social service groups that receive public money, among other issues. Joshua Dubois, the office’s executive director, has said clarifying such legal boundaries will be a priority under President Obama, who was among those critical of the Bush Administration for what some saw as intentional vagueness around issues like what constitutes proselytizing and how explicit government-funded groups need to be about separating religious and secular work.
The task force is one of six set up by the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The others are: fatherhood, U.S. economic recovery, interreligious dialogue, global poverty, and the environment and climate change. The groups, which include many major faith-based social service providers as well as some secular representatives, will advise the president but not make policy.
But the hiring issue is so complex, thorny and politically charged, officials have decided that it will get hashed out by the president’s legal counsel and the attorney general’s office, primarily. The task force charged with making recommendations on constitutional issues will focus on things like encouraging faith-based groups to form separate non-profits to receive federal monies (in an effort to keep secular and religious work separate) and making sure the groups are clear on what constitutes proselytizing.
So far, there doesn’t appear to be an outcry from either side on the administration’s cautious tact, despite that Obama said as a candidate that he was explicitly against religious discrimination in hiring.
Jill Schumann, president of Lutheran Services in America and one of about 60 people at a recent first big meeting held by the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said she understood the president not rushing on legal issues.
“I think their intent is to say, rather than simply giving broad general answers to these issues, we’ll try to work them through first,” she said, “to try and clarify some of these muddy intersections.”