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From President Obama today we learned of his plans to work with religious groups that provide social services. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has some new priorities, such as reducing abortions and promoting fatherhood. It has a new young director, but it also faces some old challenges, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: President Obama got his start in community organizing with money from a Catholic group and he said faith-based organizations know as well as anyone else how to deal with poverty. So it was no surprised when he announced his own faith-based initiatives at the National Prayer Breakfast. The goal, he said, is not to favor one religious group over another or to elevate religious groups over secular ones.
President BARACK OBAMA: 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 that our founders wisely drew between church and state.
HAGERTY: Later in the day, Mr. Obama appointed Joshua DuBois to run the office. The 26-year-old directed religious outreach in Mr. Obama's Senate office and during the campaign.
Mr. JIM TOWEY (Former Bush Administration Official): My first bit of advice is he better pray every day.
HAGERTY: Jim Towey ran the faith-based office for five years under President Bush and is now president of St. Vincent's College.
Mr. TOWEY: Because you really need the wisdom to navigate a very treacherous landscape between the establishments clause and the free exercise clause of the Constitution.
HAGERTY: He's referring to the white hot question: Should religious groups that receive federal money for social services be able to hire and fire people based on religious beliefs? The Obama administration has not decided yet so the office will ask White House lawyers to decide on a case-by-case basis.
Another twist: The Obama faith-based office will have an advisory council. It will include 25 religious and secular leaders of all stripes, from the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention to a rabbi who believes there shouldn't be an office at all. One of the members, liberal evangelical leader Jim Wallis, says these leaders have real-world experience.
Reverend JIM WALLIS (Founder, Sojourners): Faith communities are the ones who know the kids, the families, the streets in our poorest neighborhoods. They know what works and what doesn't. And so, now, we'll be able to advice on what kinds of things are really working and helping, and which things aren't.
HAGERTY: That has Jim Towey wondering. If groups like World Vision or Catholic Charities, whose presidents are on the council, apply for federal grants, does that raise the appearance of favoritism?
Mr. TOWEY: If you're giving these individuals access to the president of the United States and to high-level meetings, can they be in that room and at the same time have their hand out trying to get federal grant money?
HAGERTY: It is Joshua DuBois who will have to deal with questions like this. DuBois was raised in Nashville, the stepson of an African Methodist Episcopal pastor. He joined a Pentecostal church when he went to Boston University, and was soon preaching himself.
Mr. EUGENE SCHNEEBERG: He was 16 when he started B.U. He reminds me of Dr. King.
HAGERTY: Eugene Schneeberg has been a close friend since they were students at B.U. He first came across DuBois in the university quad in February 1999. An immigrant named Amadou Diallo had been shot 41 times by New York police officers. And DuBois, then a freshman, inscribed the words "no more" on a poster board and began a 41-hour vigil. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While the police fired 41 rounds, Diallo was shot 19 times.]
Mr. SCHNEEBERG: By the time the 41 hours was over, overnight, standing up all this time, hundreds and hundreds of people had joined him, and the news had come, and people had brought him food and stood with him for hours at a time.
HAGERTY: The next day, he says, an article appeared in the paper.
Mr. SCHNEEBERG: I made a file on Josh DuBois that day because something in me said this young man is remarkable.
HAGERTY: Schneeberg says this foreshadowed DuBois' drive to combine his faith with social activism and policy, a passion he shares with President Obama. DuBois will need a close relationship with the president and nimble skills to weather the political and legal storms that will no doubt hit his office.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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