Obama's Faith Advisors Vote on Church-State Issues

President Obama's faith advisory council recently voted to require churches that receive federal funds to establish separate non-profit corporations as a "necessary means of achieving church-state separation."

The vote was 13 to 12 in favor of the requirement.

The 25 members, who were appointed last year to advise the revamped White House faith-based office, placed their votes on what Melissa Rogers, chair of the council, says are "non-consensus issues" earlier this month.

A majority of the council members also voted against the removal of religious art, scripture, messages or symbols in rooms where federally funded social services are provided. Providers would instead be encouraged to be sensitive to those beneficiaries who may object to the presence of religious symbols. Two members, meanwhile, said the rooms should be devoid of all religious symbols, and seven said the symbols should be permitted only if no other space is available and covering them up is infeasible.

These are among over 60 recommendations made by the council that will be presented to Obama in a final report within the next couple of months.

Some of the recommendations may hearten those who have been pushing for the separation of church and state in the White House faith-based office. Critics of the office, which Obama renamed the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, say they have so far seen little change since the previous administration.

"One year after Obama announced his version of the faith-based office, civil rights and civil liberties groups such as mine are still fighting Bush-era battles over tax funding to religious groups that proselytize, job discrimination on religious grounds in public programs and lack of accountability," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a recent commentary on The Huffington Post.

The 25-member advisory council had been formed to examine some of the contentious issues.

Lynn offered the council advice on some of the issues. He argued that all public funds that go to a house of worship to operate social services should be handled by a separately incorporated nonprofit (which the council narrowly approved). He also urged that publicly funded social services should not take place in a space where sectarian symbols or signs are present (which the council defeated).

Obama's Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships marked its first anniversary last week. Each of the 25 members of the advisory council was appointed to a one-year term.

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