New Director, New Direction for the Office of Faith Based Initiatives

Each Wednesday, IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT features analysis of a news story from the week.

Did you hear the news last week? A successor was named for the man who recently resigned from his prominent position in a city without a state…. No, I’m not talking about Pope Francis I. Last Wednesday, the same day the new Pontiff was announced, the White House appointed Melissa Rogers to replace Joshua DuBois as executive director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Rogers comes to the White House from her position as founding Director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School and is a highly regarded expert in Church-State relations.

Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies, President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Justice recently wrote in a statement, “It is to the good of society in general, as well as to our nation’s many religious communities and numerous faith-based organizations, and a decision of great credit to President Obama, that he appointed to this strategic office at this time such a stalwart, experienced, and authoritative advocate of religious freedom.” While the Legislative Counsel at the ACLU, Dena Sher, said in a statement, “Melissa has worked for years to protect religious liberty and uphold the Constitution. She will be strongly committed to the Office’s goal of ensuring that government partnerships with religious organizations uphold our laws and our values.”

That fact that these two organizations both praised Melissa is striking because they have diametrically opposite positions on the rights of faith-based organizations. (Point of full disclosure, I work for Dr. Carlson-Thies at IRFA.) The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (an outgrowth of much of CPJ’s work in the ‘90’s) advocates for the rights of faith-based organizations to define who they will and will not hire, how they administer their services and seeks to protect them from being required to defy their own ethical teachings. The American Civil Liberties Union’s stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” and deems granting specific rights to faith based organizations as unconstitutional discrimination.

So what will Melissa Rogers’ appointment mean for faith-based organizations? How will her leadership impact important organizations like World Vision, the International Justice Mission and Catholic Charities? To figure that out, the often-misunderstood White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (formerly the Office of Faith Based Initiatives) needs to be clearly defined. The office famously, and somewhat controversially, began under President George W. Bush; however its inception preceded the second Bush’s presidency. Four years before George Bush took office, President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act into law, which included a provision called Charitable Choice. This piece of the law allows the federal government to contract with faith-based social service providers.

During the 2000 election, both Vice President Al Gore and President Bush spoke of expanding government’s partnership with religious organizations. Shortly after his inauguration, President Bush created the Office of Faith Based Initiatives to promote greater cooperation between the federal government and the non-profit sector, both faith-based and secular. President Obama upheld this office, and created an advisory council of religious and secular leaders to advise the White House on regulations relating to religious organizations and on what issues the White House and charitable sector can work together on.

The function of the office has varied over its 12 year history. Its primary purpose is to coordinate offices of faith-based initiatives in the other departments of the federal government. These offices do not award government grants themselves, but ensure that rules and regulations put in place by the government do not impinge on religious organizations’ ability to fully participate in various endeavors of the government without having to diminish their religious identity. While this primarily involves issues regarding hiring, it can also include issues ranging from who a homeless shelter can choose to house, or house together, to whether or not a Catholic organization would be required to provide contraceptives to participate in an AIDS prevention program. Under President Obama’s watch, the role of the office has moved into a role of working to create coordinated action among faith-based organizations on a variety of issues from environmentalism to human trafficking.

 President Obama Signed an Executive Order to Implement Reform Recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2010.

President Obama Signed an Executive Order to Implement Reform Recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2010.

I suspect that under Roger’s leadership, the Office will move away from its community organizing function of the past four years and back to what it looked like under President Bush. Prior to leading the Office, DuBois, an ordained minister, led faith-based outreach for then Senator Obama. Rogers, on the other hand, is an academic specializing in church-state relations. It seems natural then, that Rogers will work to clarify this relationship further. I share Dr. Carlson-Thies’ cautious optimism that Rogers will protect religious organizations from the increasing secularizing pressures that the government and society are facing. He expressed some concern regarding her views on government grants and religious hiring. Given that the president has maintained the status quo on the issue, I would not expect the White House to change horses midstream. However, I won’t be holding my breath that the Justice Department will also be providing a robust defense of the practice.

-Paul Hartge is the assistant to the president at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He graduated from Calvin College in 2010 with a double major in political science and religion.