President Obama's new and expanded faith-based office will continue to allow federally funded religious groups to consider an applicant's religion when hiring – at least, for now.
When Obama rolled out the newly named White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships last week, the hiring policy for the office created under former president Bush remained intact.
But the faith-based office will be stricter when it comes to overseeing how federal funds are being used by faith-based groups. Obama had emphasized at the National Prayer Breakfast – just hours before signing the order to establish the faith-based office – that the office would strictly adhere to a separation of church and state.
Under the Obama administration, federally funded faith-based groups are expected to be held more accountable in an effort to prevent tax dollars from being spent on religious evangelism or other non-secular purposes.
The hiring policy of the faith-based office has been a source of controversy and Obama had vowed on the campaign trail to reverse the Bush hiring policy so that groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate based on religion.
"As someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state," Obama said last July in a speech about expanding Bush's office of faith-based initiatives. "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."
His statement had sent fear into the faith-based social service community. They felt they could not apply for government funding under an Obama faith-based office if they were required to hire ministry staffs that held contrary beliefs and values to their organization.
Thus, Obama's decision to leave the Bush hiring policy in place for now pleased religious groups.
"I'm very excited about this," said Frank Page, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the religious leaders who will advise Obama on faith-based issues, according to The Los Angeles Times. "I know he was struggling with this particular issue. But this will allow religious groups to be true to themselves."
The hiring policy will undergo a legal review before Obama makes a decision on hiring guidelines. Under Obama's executive order, the faith-based office has access to the White House legal counsel and the Justice Department to work out legal issues such as faith-based hiring.
In the meantime, the office will deal with complaints against faith-based groups receiving federal funding on a case-to-case basis until a better solution can be found.
"This is an area of unclear policy and practice, but we can now begin seeking the advice of government and outside actors and see what groups are doing on the grounds," said Joshua DuBois, the new director of the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office, according to U.S. News & World Report.
While religious groups can be at ease over the hiring policy for now, some conservatives have turned their concern toward the faith-based office's role regarding abortion.
The National Black Pro-Life Union criticized Obama for not laying out a strategy on how to make abortions "rare" when discussing the faith-based office and its focus on family planning.
"The President removed the Mexico City Policy on Jan. 23, to allow U.S. taxpayer dollars to fund radically pro-abortion organizations around the world," said Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union, in a statement Monday. "It is further proof that he plans to expand and increase death by abortion which means millions more children will die."
But former SBC president Frank Page, said he was encouraged when he saw that two of the office's priorities are reducing abortions and supporting responsible fatherhood, according to Baptist Press.
While expressing reservations about serving on the President's Advisory Council, Page believes that by being at the table he could at least give voice to "a conservative, biblical viewpoint," as reported by Baptist Press.