Saturday, October 03, 2009

Keeping Faith

I've been railing against President Obama's refusal to honor some of the promises of his campaign almost from the start of his administration (which is when he began breaking those promises). President Obama is keeping the military commissions system to "try" detainees at Guantanamo. He wants only a slightly watered down "State Secrets" approach to litigation involving government spying on citizens. He wants the Patriot Act provisions about to expire in December renewed. In other words, he has embraced some of the worst parts of the Bush administration.

Nearly nine months into his administration, some major media outlets are beginning to get the same picture. An editorial from the "center-left" Los Angeles Times noted the dissonance between campaigner Obama and President Obama when it comes to government funding of "faith-based initiatives." The nominee promised to look into the discriminatory hiring practices of those programs, and as late as February of this year, the president promised that those programs would be required to abide by the Constitution in that regard. By that time, of course, he had opened the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an open imprimatur of the system, which should have been our first clue.

But, as the editorial notes, that was not much of a promise.

...Left undisturbed, however, was a 2007 Justice Department memo concluding that the government couldn't condition grants to religious groups on compliance with laws against bias in hiring.

The memo cited the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which exempts believers from laws that substantially burden their exercise of religion unless there is a "compelling governmental interest" in making them comply. A commonly cited example is an exemption from drug laws for Native Americans who use the hallucinogen peyote in religious ceremonies. But that and similar concessions don't have the broad effect of a rule allowing a host of government-funded social service programs to discriminate against job applicants of the "wrong" religion.

In other words, the Justice Department under President Bush had already determined that the religious groups providing the social services were entitled to discriminate in their hiring practices. That policy is still in effect.

Now, the L.A. Times editorial board appears to be quite comfortable with the whole idea of government funding for "faith based initiatives," and sees nothing wrong with an office in the White House for the group that oversees the dispersal of such funds. Apparently the Times concept of separation of church and state differs dramatically from mine (and that of our founders). That said, however, even the editorial board finds something dreadfully wrong with this Bush holdover:

Last month, groups supporting the separation of church and state sent a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asking him to rescind the 2007 memo. A new administration shouldn't casually reinterpret the law to serve a political purpose, as the Bush administration did with its memos justifying torture. In this case, however, both the 1st Amendment and a reasonable reading of federal law require a reversal of the Bush policy. In his campaign, Obama promised that groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate in hiring based on religion. He should keep faith with that principle.


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