Obama council approves recommendations to reform, expand faith-based initiative

As expected, President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships approved a series of recommendations Friday aimed at reforming … Continued

As expected, President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships approved a series of recommendations Friday aimed at reforming and encouraging the federal government’s efforts to work with faith-based organizations.

Among the recommendations, the 25-member council approved 12 specific suggestions for strengthening the constitutional and legal footing of public-private partnerships. The council recommends that the administration clarify prohibited uses of direct financial assistance, protect the religious identity of faith-based clients, and assure the religious liberty rights of clients and beneficiaries of federal social service funds.

“Partnerships between government and religious organizations are a given,” said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and a member of the task force charged with reform of the office. Walker is also an On Faith panelist.

“But, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships needs to carefully craft rules that will protect the ability of religiously affiliated groups to participate without compromising the principle of the separation of church and state. These recommendations go a long way to achieve this goal.”

(Read the entire report and find all the recommendations here.)

The final report includes two issues about which council members disagreed.

Members were in agreement that government should let faith-based service providers retain their religious identities, but they disagreed “about whether the Government should allow social services subsidized by Federal grant or contract funds to be provided in rooms that contain religious art, scripture, messages, or symbols” the report states.

The council also split over the issue of whether the government should require houses of worship to form separate nonprofit corporations to receive federal funding for social services. That recommendation passed 13-12.

Despite those differences, council members were pleased with the results and the process.

“It’s a noteworthy day in Washington when a diverse group of leaders is able to work across lines of belief and political perspective and find common ground on a wide variety of policy issues,” said Melissa Rogers, director of the Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and a member of the reform task force.

“I’m thrilled that the Advisory Council, comprised of leaders from both religious and secular communities and representing a variety of political perspectives, has been able to agree on so many ways to strengthen the partnerships our government forms with nonprofits to serve people in need. We’ve worked diligently for the past year and today was the payoff — we approved a long list of specific and substantive recommendations aimed at protecting the most vulnerable among us and doing so in ways that respect our nation’s commitment to religious freedom. I look forward to delivering our report to the administration, and I expect the report to be given careful consideration.”

The council will meet once more to present the recommendations to senior Obama Administration officials. The meeting is scheduled for March 9.

“I believe the President is sincere in both his outreach to the faith and non-profit community,” said Richard Stearns, president of World Vision and a member of the task force on poverty, health and development. “The issues are complex and he has some enormous challenges before him. It would be to his benefit to tap into the wisdom and experience of the council through this report as he addresses these complex issues. We all stand-ready to assist in his efforts.”

UPDATE: One interesting idea coming out of the council’s fatherhood task force is the idea of fathering courts — something that’s been piloted in places like Missouri. The way it works is that instead of prosecuting and locking up men in arrears for child support, prosecutors, social workers, case managers, etc. would work with them men to help them find jobs, improve their marriage or parenting — overcome obstacles preventing them from contributing to their children’s lives.

“It’s a relatively new approach that government is taking,” said Arturo Chavez, President of the Mexican American Catholic College and member of the fatherhood task force, “In the past, the role the father had for providing for family was treated as a punitive thing. You had cases where the government was working against the family.” Chavez said his task force hopes their recommendations would bring more funding and attention to such programs.

As for his overall experience on the council, Chavez said, “I know there’s been some blogs or articles talk about not able to accomplish that much,” noting doubts in recent months about the council’s work. “But I think there’s some very important recommendations in this document that will hopefully set priorities for funding programs that make a difference.”

UPDATE: The task force on global poverty’s recommendations included: “Emphasize long-term development goals and local engagement in USAID grants and cooperative agreements.”

Said Stearns: “Simply put, the success of any U.S. Government foreign assistance program and strategy needs to both focus on addressing the systemic causes of
poverty, meeting the immediate needs of people, and working with local populations to find solutions in their context. I believe this can best be done by implementing long term sustainable solutions over the quick fix approach which often only treats the symptoms. Ultimately, the goal is equipping communities to become self-sustaining.”

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