Barack Obama’s pledge to embrace President Bush’s faith-based initiative is “hollow,” Jim Towey, who headed the White House initiative from 2002 to 2006, tells Newsmax.
The reason, Towey says, is that Obama undercut his claim to support the initiative by saying he would prevent any religious group that only hires people of the same religion from receiving federal funds,
“It’s a hollow pledge to embrace President Bush’s faith-based initiative while abandoning one of its core principles,” Towey says. “It’s dead on arrival with evangelicals, with many African-American churches, with orthodox Jews, and I think it’s a disappointment to a lot of Catholic charities out there that right now are forced to secularize their hiring to take federal money.”
Before Bush hired him, Towey was Florida’s secretary of health and social services under Gov. Lawton Chiles. For 12 years, Towey was legal counsel to Mother Teresa. In 1990, he lived as a volunteer in a home she ran in Washington for people addicted to drugs or alcohol, many of whom had AIDS. In 1996, Towey founded Aging with Dignity, a Tallahassee organization that promotes better healthcare for people with terminal illness.
Because of President Bush's faith-based initiative, programs that help the needy and that are affiliated with religious groups now receive $2.2 billion a year in federal grants, according to White House spokesperson Rebecca Neale. Before Bush took office, many faith-based programs were discouraged from applying for them.
In recent remarks, Obama claimed that Bush’s promise to “rally the armies of compassion” through the faith-based initiative had gone unfulfilled because of too little financing and too much partisanship. The presidential candidate said he would expand the program.
But, describing himself “as someone who used to teach constitutional law,” Obama enunciated “a few basic principles” so that such partnerships between religious groups and the government would not threaten separation of church and state.
“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” Obama said.
While the initiative may seem like a way of mixing church and state, further examination reveals that it is simply a way to make sure that social service organizations are not deprived of federal funds simply because they are affiliated with the Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or Muslim faith. Because the money is given to existing organizations often staffed by volunteers, it is channeled to help those who are hungry, addicted to drugs, or illiterate in the most efficient way possible.
Thus, taxpayers do not have to pay for new layers of bureaucracy to distribute the aid. In effect, the faith-based initiative leverages the government's money. The faith-based initiative is an example of Bush’s compassionate conservative approach — a practical way to attack social problems without massive federal spending.
“Obama gets points for talking about the faith-based initiative and embracing President Bush’s foundation,” says Towey, who is president of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania. “The problem is that you can’t embrace the Bush faith-based initiative and abandon one of its core principles. I think he has succumbed to pressure from members of his own party who block charitable choice legislation at every turn.”
That core principle is that “faith-based groups should not have to forfeit their civil rights when taking federal money,” Towey says. “They should be able to hire on a religious basis. It’s established law that faith-based groups are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. After all, how can an orthodox Jewish group stay orthodox Jewish if they can’t hire on a religious basis?”
Towey acknowledges that the courts have never ruled either way on the issue Obama raised: whether religious groups that discriminate may receive federal funds. He says Congress itself has passed legislation that both supports and undercuts the proposition that organizations that receive federal money may discriminate.
“Some laws, like welfare-to-work legislation, expressly permit a faith-based charity to take federal money and to hire on a religious basis,” he says. “But Congress also has laws such as the Workforce Investment Act, which is a job training program that expressly prohibits a faith-based group from receiving their money and hiring on a religious basis.”
Ironically, Towey says, President Clinton signed into law the first legislation that allows such federal funding of groups that discriminate.
“Obama is taking a position that’s more radical than President Clinton took,” Towey says.
While many faith-based charities do not discriminate, “Historically, evangelical groups have not taken any government money, because they want to hire on a religious basis. President Bush opened the doors, and some evangelical groups like rescue missions have walked through.”
For the same reason, many African-American churches have not taken government money. Because the faith-based initiative was never endorsed by Congress and is often confusing to organizations, many other religious groups shy away from taking federal money.
“When I first heard that Senator Obama was going to wade in and embrace the faith-based initiative, I said, ‘Fantastic,’” Towey says. “But when you look at the details of it, it looks like he’s actually undercutting his message and taking us back to where we were before the faith-based initiative started.”
Towey sees Obama as aligning himself with congressional Democrats who have blocked any new legislation to allow federal funding of religious groups that want to hire members of their own religion.
“They’re pressured to do this by groups like the NAACP, ACLU, and Human Rights Watch, which have made it abundantly clear they would never, ever permit legislation to move forward that had religious hiring protections,” Towey says.
“Never mind that Planned Parenthood receives over $300 million a year, and they discriminate in their hiring in broad daylight, by only hiring like-minded people,” he notes. “If you’re pro-life, try getting a job at Planned Parenthood. So why can’t faith-based groups hire on the basis of their ideology and vision?”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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