The New Director of Obama’s Faith-Based Office is a Supporter of Church-State Separation

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there’s good news in the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP).

First, some background. President George W. Bush establish the office in 2001 with the intention of giving faith-based groups taxpayer money to provide social services. A lot of church/state separation groups rightly criticized it (and still do) because funding religion like that is a violation of our Constitution.

When Barack Obama was elected, there was hope that he would eliminate the office altogether. Instead, he expanded it. Joshua DuBois was selected to head up the office and he set up an advisory board consisting of representatives from various faith communities.

To date, no representative of an atheist community has ever been invited to join this board.

A month ago, when Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast (another potential church/state violation), he announced that DuBois would be stepping down from his post… which brings us to a major development announced yesterday.

His replacement will be Melissa Rogers, former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Doesn’t sound like a step up, but trust me, it is. In fact, she could be a nightmare for the Religious Right if she’s able to make certain changes to the office.

In 2010, Rogers was part of a taskforce assigned to fix the OFBNP, a group that included the awesome Reverend Dr . Welton Gaddy (of the Interfaith Alliance) and Rev. Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State).

They came up with recommendations (PDF) that made regulations stricter:

A number of the reforms advocated in these recommendations are aimed at honoring our country’s commitment to religious freedom. The recommendations call, for example, for greater clarity in the church-state guidance given to social service providers so that tax funds are used appropriately and providers are not confused or sued. The recommendations also insist that beneficiaries must be notified of their religious liberty rights, including their rights to alternative providers. And the recommendations urge the Administration to take steps to increase confidence that the rules applicable to federally funded partnerships are actually being observed and that decisions about government grants are made on the merits of proposals, not on political or religious considerations.

Those recommendations forbade groups receiving federal money from “engaging in ‘explicitly religious’ activities” when doing the work they’re getting money to do.

There are still issues with the office that have not been satisfactorily resolved yet — religious groups can still get away with refusing to hire women, gays, atheists, etc. even if they’re getting federal money to pay for the workers. (The taskforce was told specifically not to work on those issues at the time.)

So, given that the OFBNP isn’t going away anytime soon, the best thing to do is to find a leader who understands church-state separation and will do everything in her power to uphold it. Rogers is that person.

Rev. Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance was thrilled with the selection:

“I know of no better person President Obama could have appointed as the new Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships than my valued friend and longtime colleague Melissa Rogers. For more than 25 years, Melissa has been a trusted coworker in the fight to protect religious liberty. Melissa’s rich experience in the dialogue between law and faith, as well as between religion and government, will serve our nation well.”

“During President Obama’s first term, great efforts were made to bring the faith-based initiative more in line with the Constitution and to better protect social service beneficiaries. As a member of the task force on the President’s Advisory Council charged with bringing the faith-based office more in line with the Constitution, I saw the benefits of Melissa Rogers’ wisdom, skill, and leadership among diverse traditions and differing points of view. Though I have been opposed to a faith-based office in the White House since the entity was first established, with Melissa as the leader of that office, I have more confidence than I ever have felt before that the office will pay close attention to the religious liberty clauses in the Constitution. Much work is yet to be done on the proper relationship between federal money and sectarian organizations, including resolving whether these organizations can continue to accept taxpayer dollars while discriminating in hiring based on religion — which I do not believe they should be allowed to do. I know of no individual better suited to oversee this important endeavor, with sensitivity to the competing views and priorities at play, and with great integrity, than Melissa Rogers.”

Maggie Garrett, Legislative Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also added her praise:

Melissa Rogers is a smart pick for the position. She is well extremely well-versed in the constitutional issues surrounding the Faith-Based Initiative. One of the current tasks before the Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is to implement reforms to the Faith-Based Initiative, as adopted by the President’s Executive Order. As the Chair of the Advisory Council that suggested those reforms to the President, she has a thorough understanding and dedication to them and so we expect that she will properly and effectively implement them.

Dena Sher, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU, agreed as well:

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.

***Update***: The American Humanist Association‘s Executive Director Roy Speckhardt adds via email:

“The AHA is pleased to see that Melissa Rogers will be the new Director of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the White House.

Ms. Rogers was formerly on the President’s Advisory Council for Faith Based & Neighborhood Partnerships where she suggested some much needed changes in the relationship between the government and the faith community.

She has also met with representatives from the AHA to listen to our concerns regarding hiring discrimination by religious aid organizations for programs that use federal funds. We look forward to working with her in the near future.”

Finally, Michael De Dora, director of CFI’s Office of Policy, hopes Rogers can enact the changes she pressed for back in 2010:

The previous director of the faith-based office, Joshua DuBois, was a Pentecostal minister and Obama advisor who regularly downplayed or ignored the concerns of church-state advocates. Rogers, on the other hand, is a lawyer who thoroughly understands and respects the principle of separation of church and state

… Obama has not enacted another important reform he promised to make while campaigning in 2008: close a harmful loophole that allows groups that receive federal funds through the program to discriminate in hiring. Yet I can think of few people who would be better to work with in trying to change that than Melissa Rogers.

So, welcome aboard, Ms. Rogers, and thank you, Mr. President, for appointing someone to head the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships who respects the idea of secular government. It is a breath of fresh air.

In case you need more of a reason to be optimistic about her appointment, some Christian groups are worried she’ll take away their right to discriminate:

many faith-based organizations will be very uneasy about Rogers’ view that their right to hire on a religious basis should be limited in any program they operate using government funds. Such a universal limit would be unprecedented and would cause many of the government’s current and most-valued service partners to have to walk away. The President, who holds the same position, has refrained so far from making such a drastic and counterproductive change. Here’s praying that an appreciation for the important work of the government’s religious partners will continue to trump abstract separationist impulses.

Rogers has a lot of work in store for her, but the bar for the office has been set pretty low. If she lives up to even some of these expectations, we’re all going to be better off.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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