LGBT Leaders Weigh Obama's Faith-Based Initiative

LGBT activists are riled up over Obama's White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, saying the program lacks anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

BY Kerry Eleveld

February 07 2009 12:00 AM ET

President Barack
Obama signed an executive order last Thursday that
created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood
Partnerships -- a 2.0 version of the Bush
administration’s faith-based initiative that
will seek to strike more of a balance between secular and
religious organizations in bringing aid to the
nation’s neediest.

“There is
a force for good greater than government,” President
Obama said at the signing, “that reveals itself
not simply in places of worship, but in senior centers
and shelters, schools and hospitals, and any place an
American decides.”? 

The program,
which President Obama initially outlined in a campaign
speech last summer, immediately agitated LGBT activists
who fear any such initiative could be problematic on
several levels: Religious organizations that receive
federal funding could discriminate against LGBT
people in their hiring practices and they could
also decline to provide services to the LGBT
population; certain organizations may not qualify for
funding depending on the criteria established; and
individuals who receive services might be proselytized
to. 

During the Bush
administration, grantees were in fact permitted to
select employees based on their religious principles, and
organizations that did not adhere to abstinence-only
teaching standards were deemed ineligible for funding.
The LGBT-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, with
about 225 churches nationwide, for instance, concluded that
they could not receive funds based on their
programming. 

Reverend Dr.
Cindi Love, executive director of MCC, called on President
Obama to undo President Bush's executive order 13,279,
which expressly allowed faith-based and community
organizations to choose employees based on their faith
and creed.

"President Obama
should issue executive orders that clarify that
faith-based and community organizations [receiving federal
funds] are governed by all applicable federal, state,
and local antidiscrimination laws," she said, "and
then strengthen provisions protecting beneficiaries
from discrimination or proselytizing by service
providers."

This action would
not, as many fundamentalists claim, force religious
organizations to hire LGBT people. But any programs
administered with the help of federal dollars would
have to adhere to nondiscriminatory hiring practices.

"We’re not
trying to tell churches they can’t hire a pastor who
believes in what the denomination believes," said Harry
Knox, director of the Human Rights Campaign's Religion
and Faith Program, "we’re simply saying that if
they hire a social worker or a cook in the kitchen or
a youth outreach worker, that person's beliefs and whether
they’re pro-LGBT or LGBT themselves should not stand
in the way of their being hired." But even with such
an executive order, LGBT people are left vulnerable in
many areas of the country because no federal
employment laws currently protect people based on their
sexual orientation or gender identity.

President Obama
did not address these thorny issues directly last week,
instead painting rhetorical broad-brush strokes over deep
divisions.

 “Instead of driving us apart, our varied
beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and
comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is
strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who
have fallen on hard times,” Obama told attendees at
the National Prayer Breakfast, where he mentioned the
new initiative.

President Obama
added that the goal of this office would “not be to
favor one religious group over another -- or even
religious groups over secular groups,” but
rather to enable organizations that are working in the
trenches to better America’s communities.

In the way of
particulars, he said the funding eligibility of groups
would be reviewed by the Department of Justice on a
case-by-case basis and that a 25-member advisory
council would be appointed to make policy
recommendations. Reverend Joshua DuBois, a 26-year old
Pentecostal minister who conducted faith outreach for
the Obama campaign, will head the office.

Given the lack of
specifics, most reporters referred back to details
presented during the campaign when a similar outcry erupted.
Materials sent to The Advocate stated that
although no federal employment protections exist for
LGBT people, “federal funding recipients --
including faith-based organizations -- should have to
comply with existing federal, state and local laws,
including laws prohibiting discrimination based on
religion, sexual orientation, or gender
identity.”

LGBT activists
were heartened to find that one openly gay man, Fred Davie
of the New York-based Public/Private Ventures, was one of
the 15 people Obama immediately named to the advisory
council. 

But in what has
been a recurring theme for gay advocates thus far, that
enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that other council
members included people who have promoted antigay
policies.

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