New Name, More of the Same? Secular Coalition Responds to Obama's Faith-Based Funding Plans

For Immediate Release: February 5, 2009
Contact: Anne Singer, 202-271-4679

Washington, DC – As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to abide by "a few basic principles" that would protect the constitutional separation of church and state in his plan for an expanded White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He was specific: "First, 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. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs."

As President Obama prepares to unveil his version of President Bush’s faith-based program and introduce a new advisory council for it, there is little indication that he will deliver on his promises to remedy its inherent constitutional problems in a timely way. "Changing two words in the name does not make this a new program," said Ron Millar, acting director of the Secular Coalition for America. "It still begins with 'faith-based' and it still ends up giving taxpayer dollars to religious institutions."

The Secular Coalition for America lobbied for closure of President Bush's White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives on the grounds that providing federal funds to religious institutions is a violation of church-state separation and a threat to individual religious liberty. Faith-based funding under the Bush administration: privileged religious groups by giving them special access to federal dollars; failed to monitor whether funds were used to evangelize or convert recipients of social services; and failed to ensure that organizations receiving federal dollars did not discriminate by hiring only those individuals who share their religious views.

So far, President Obama has offered no specifics on how and when he will address these constitutional problems he himself has identified in the sprawling, multi-agency program. What is known is that he will give it a new director, appoint an advisory council to oversee it, and order a legal review of hiring practices. "Giving the same, flawed program a new name and new personnel is not the change we need," said Millar. "Not another taxpayer dollar should be spent until all the constitutional and civil rights concerns are addressed."

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The Secular Coalition for America represents nine national coalition partners who share the view that a secular government offers the best guarantee for freedom of thought and belief for all Americans. It works to protect the civil rights of nontheistic Americans, and lobbies the U.S. Congress on issues of concern to its constituents. The Coalition's Web site is www.secular.org.

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