Obama Says Social Services Can be Provided in Religious Facilities

President Obama signed an executive order Wednesday that made some clarifications on the partnership between the government and faith-based organizations.

In an executive order, the president said the government is required to provide recipients of federally funded social service programs referrals to alternative providers if they object to ones provided by religious organizations, post online the list of entities receiving federal financial assistance for social service programs, and monitor and enforce standards regarding the relationship between religion and government to avoid excessive entanglement.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the order, however, is the approval that allows religious organizations receiving federal money to provide social services in their facilities without removing religious art, icons and scripture. The organizations also can retain religious terms in their name and choose board members based on religion.

Although this order does not address the controversial issue of religious requirements in hiring, it does clarify that board members can be selected on a religious basis.

It also stated that organizations benefiting from federal financial assistance cannot engage in explicitly religious activities during times when providing social services funded by tax dollars.

The clarifications were based on recommendations made by a taskforce of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"With this Executive Order, we are strengthening and clarifying the legal footing of the government's relationship with faith-based organizations and underscoring the important role of these organizations in serving individuals, families and communities in need," remarked Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in a statement.

The order does not make any major changes about qualifications for funding, but clarifies questions on what is expected of the government and faith-based groups once they receive financial assistance.

The National Association of Evangelicals welcomed President Obama's executive order, saying that it puts forth good practices on how the government can work with faith-based organizations.

"Faith-based social service organizations are deeply rooted in our communities and often serve our most vulnerable citizens of all religions and none," said Galen Carey, NAE's director of government affairs, in a statement Thursday. "The government is right to partner with faith-based organizations that have expertise in solving community problems, such as hunger, poverty, homelessness and drug addiction. We welcome the President's order, which builds on policies and good practices developed over three administrations of both political parties."

On the other hand, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a church-state watchdog group, said it was "disappointed" in the order because it allowed faith-based groups to display religious signs and scriptures and avoided a clear answer on religious hiring practices.

"I'm disappointed. This leaves much of George W. Bush's faith-based initiative in place," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement. "I am particularly frustrated that President Obama still has done nothing to ban hiring bias by publicly funded religious charities."

"That's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. No American should be denied a government-funded job because he or she holds the 'wrong' views about religion."

During his presidential campaign, Obama said he would repeal the policy created under former president George W. Bush that allows federally funded religious groups to consider an applicant's religion when hiring. Christian groups were relieved to find that as president, Obama has kept the policy intact. Obama has decided to have the Justice Department deal with complaints on a case-by-case basis.

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