Back into a church-state minefield

minefieldAs strange as it sounds, the coverage of President Barack Obama's new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has me yearning for the clarity of the Bill Clinton years. What in the heckfire am I talking about?

Well, consider the top of the CNN report on the controversy surrounding this issue, which is oh so typical of what we saw yesterday:

President Obama's newly revamped Office of Faith Based Initiatives is reigniting a contentious debate across the ideological spectrum over whether religious organizations that accept funds from the government should be allowed to discriminate when hiring.

In one corner is a string of religion-backed organizations that have accepted federal funds from the 8-year-old program to advance their secular charity work. President Bush issued an executive order in 2002 that allowed these groups to continue their practice of discrimination with respect to hiring. Specifically, many of the organizations carry policies against hiring outside their religion or hiring homosexuals whose lifestyles conflict with church doctorines.

In the other corner are separation-of-church-and-state advocates and human-rights organizations that say the government must constitutionally compel these organizations to follow nondiscrimination laws if they accept federal funding. Anything less, they say, would at best be a violation of church-state separation and at worst an implicit endorsement of discrimination.

Where to begin, other than the fact that CNN's copy desk does not know how to spell the crucial word "doctrines"?

You see, once upon a time there was a wide coalition -- roughly from the ACLU to Pat Robertson -- that was focused on another issue altogether, which was free speech, freedom of association and trying to find ways (think "equal access" laws) that treated religious believers and nonbelievers the same when it came time for them to express their beliefs. That was the paradigm, to use a hot '90s word.

It was crucial, you see, for believers and nonbelievers to have the maximum amount of freedom without the government getting entangled (the key word) in determining which doctrines were acceptable and which were not. If the chess team got to use a room after school, then so did Campus Crusade for Christ (or the young atheists circle). The only other legal option was to forbid all groups from using the school rooms, so that religious practice was not singled out as uniquely dangerous.

Now, how to you extend this principle to non-profit groups that get checks drawing on tax dollars? That's the issue. There are not two positions in this debate. There are many people making many arguments, including a variety of camps that advocate the separation of church and state.

You see, some people are worried about that "entanglement" issue. How does the government rule which doctrines -- secular or sacred -- can guide government-funded work and which ones cannot?

Consider these only slightly hypothetical cases. Can the government force a non-profit AIDS group to hire people who fervently believe that AIDS is God's punishment for sin? How about forcing a cancer group to hire people who believe tobacco does not cause cancer? How about refusing to allow a Jewish group to discriminate against Holocaust deniers? How about requiring a Muslim school to hire a Zionist historian, or a Muslim who has converted to Christianity, who applies for a teaching post?

Ready, now take a deep breath and strive to be consistent. How about forcing an evangelical Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox group to hire someone who rejects centuries of Christian tradition on the definition of marriage? How about forcing a Catholic group to hire, to work in ministries rooted in Catholic social teachings, people who reject those teachings?

In other words, how does the government rule that one set of doctrines -- secular or sacred -- trumps another?

Are there other options, other than free speech and freedom of association for religious believers? Sure. Eliminate government grants to all non-profits, equally. Or set up a voucher program system where those being served are given the ability to choose their own caregivers and, thus, discriminate on the basis of their own beliefs.

The true news yesterday is that the Obama White House decided not to decide -- yet. Everyone agrees on that. However, these stories are being framed in such a way that it is clear that religious speech, religious doctrines, religious practice and the freedom of association among religious believers are rights that are now uniquely dangerous. (A confession at this point: Please recall that I opposed the Bush White House faith-based plan, because I already thought it entangled the government in crucial doctrinal issues linked to free speech and evangelism.)

Consider the Los Angeles Times lede, where the newspaper slaps Obama's hand for the delay in this ruling:

It seemed like a firm campaign promise. Barack Obama pledged to continue President Bush's faith-based office in the White House, but with a key change: Groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

On Thursday, however, as President Obama disclosed the details of his faith-based program, he left the controversial Bush policy in place. The decision angered Democrats and civil libertarians who thought Obama had agreed with their view that Bush's 2002 executive order went too far.

"Based on what he said, we thought the issue had been resolved," said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.). "You'll have to ask them why they think it's all right to discriminate," Scott said. He added that administration officials are "either offended by the idea of discrimination, or they're not."

Then again, government officials may be worried about discriminating against religious believers on either side of several crucial doctrinal issues. You think?

church20state20signsOver at the New York Times, here is the language used to cover the same basic issue:

In announcing the expansion of the religion office, Mr. Obama did not settle the biggest question: Can religious groups that receive federal money for social service programs hire only those who share their faith?

The Bush administration said yes. But many religious groups and others that are concerned about employment discrimination and protecting the separation of church and state had pushed hard for Mr. Obama to repeal the Bush policies. Meanwhile, other religious groups were lobbying to preserve their right to use religion as a criterion in hiring. Some religious social service providers warned they might stop working with the government if they were forced to change policies.

Instead of deciding the issue, the president called Thursday for a legal review of the policy case by case before determining whether religious groups can receive government money and selectively hire employees based on their religious beliefs.

Notice, again, that one has to accept the idea that discrimination issues trump the "equal access" and "entanglement" issues in order to included among those who are "concerned about ... protecting the separation of church and state." Why are groups allowed to hire according to some doctrines -- secular and religious -- while others are not? Asking that question will yield interesting information.

We are headed into new territory here and reporters need to realize that there are more than two sides in this battle.

Here's a tip: Follow the trail back into the Clinton years. Look for the "equal access" coalition members -- alas, this is very early in the WWW era -- and see where these same groups stand on the current issue. Call up experts on both sides of the Southern Baptist world. Look for the other voices.

You can see evidence of the complexity of this issue in this language from the Washington Post:

Obama's office leaves in place rules that allow faith-based groups receiving federal funding to hire only people of their own faith, but White House aides said the hiring rules would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis when there are complaints and that the Justice Department will provide legal assistance.

Obama's move more fully formalizes the partnerships between the federal government and faith groups that first began under President Bill Clinton and was expanded by President George W. Bush. But where Bush used the faith office primarily for funding programs -- drawing criticism that he was mainly assisting his political supporters -- Obama said he wants to use the office for policy guidance, as well.

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Hilton Washington yesterday, Obama said the goal of the initiative "will not be to favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line our Founders wisely drew between church and state."

What about the president's statements that the office will have an expanded set of priorities, including an open call for reducing the number of abortions? More on that later, I am sure.

Be careful out there.

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