Faith Initiative Caught Between Church, State President Obama is expected on Thursday to announce his version of the Office for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which brings together government and religious groups to provide social services. Obama is trying to avoid the Constitutional fights that plagued a similar program under his predecessor. But, the office is already caught up in controversy.
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Faith Initiative Caught Between Church, State

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Faith Initiative Caught Between Church, State

Faith Initiative Caught Between Church, State

Faith Initiative Caught Between Church, State

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President Obama is expected on Thursday to announce his version of the Office for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which brings together government and religious groups to provide social services. Obama is trying to avoid the Constitutional fights that plagued a similar program under his predecessor. But, the office is already caught up in controversy.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The White House is expected to announce its version of the Faith-Based Initiative this week. President Obama says his new Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will work with religious groups to provide social services, and it may try to change some of the rules set by the Bush Administration. But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the office is already caught in the middle of a church-state dispute.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: About a decade ago, Alicia Pedreira applied for a job at the Kentucky Baptist Home for Children, a faith-based group that accepts government contracts. Pedreira wanted to work with troubled youth, but knowing that Southern Baptists believe homosexuality is a sin, she told the director that she was gay.

MONTAGNE: And if that was going to be a problem, please not to hire me, because I didn't want to be fired in six months. It was almost prophetic.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: What reason did they give?

MONTAGNE: Because I was a lesbian. They don't need a reason. It's not protected under civil rights, and they're a religious organization.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But they get government money.

MONTAGNE: There you go.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's the crux of Pedreira's and several other lawsuits and the main issue plaguing Mr. Obama's faith-based initiative. Can religious groups that take taxpayer money refuse to employ people based on their sexual orientation or religious beliefs? The Baptist group's attorney, Steven Aden, says it's perfectly legal. That's what gives faith-based groups their purpose, drive and mission.

MONTAGNE: What the ACLU and its allies would like to see happen to faith-based organizations is tantamount to forcing an environmental group to hire representatives of a logging company or to force a vegetarian group to hire meat eaters. It's the same principle.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The Bush administration agreed and wrote executive orders allowing such discrimination. But last summer, Barack Obama seemed poised to change that. In a speech in Zanesville, Ohio, Mr. Obama said his administration would continue to give grants to religious groups doing social programs, but, he said...

P: Make no mistake, as someone who used to teach Constitutional Law, I believe deeply in separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea so long as we follow a few basic principles.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: You can't use government money to proselytize, he said, nor can you discriminate against people you might hire based on religious beliefs.

MONTAGNE: We obviously listened to the Zanesville, Ohio speech with some concern.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Rich Stearns is president of World Vision USA, a Christian relief group.

MONTAGNE: After that speech, a number of us began to engage with the Obama campaign about that issue, and we found a very receptive audience.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: In fact, Stearns believes the Obama administration has changed its mind on the hiring rules. But that's not what Barry Lynn believes. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

MONTAGNE: When Barack Obama was running for the presidency, he made it clear that he wanted to change the rules, so I'm optimistic that things will be made right.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And he's going to hold the president to that promise. So who gets to referee this constitutional fight? Most likely it will be Mr. Obama's Religious Outreach Director Joshua DuBois, who's expected to be named head of the office. Barry Lynn has a warning for him.

MONTAGNE: If rules are not changed, then and only then would this person be in the middle of a genuine firestorm.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Rich Stearns has a warning of his own. He says if President Obama does not allow him to hire anyone he wants...

MONTAGNE: World Vision would be forced to walk away from those grants, and that would really be tragic because of the thousands and thousands of people we serve.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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