It has been my privilege for the last year to serve as a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. As one of the two openly gay members of the advisory council, I want to give a brief report to the LGBT community on what was accomplished.
When President Obama was inaugurated, he inherited a faith-based initiative that was distrusted by many Americans, including many LGBT folk. Many frankly questioned whether faith-based organizations should be conduits for provision of services that make up the fabric of the social safety net. The president believes that the government can’t do everything; it doesn’t have the infrastructure, cultural competency, or the relationships required to efficiently and effectively meet the needs of the most vulnerable among us. The government works best in coalition with other organizations that spring from and understand local constituencies and issues. Many of the organizations that do have the necessary cultural competency and that are already providing otherwise secular services in local communities are faith-based organizations.
The council was charged by the president to make recommendations on how best to improve and enhance partnerships with faith-based and other, secular, community-based organizations. The name of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives was changed to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFNP) to reflect the broader focus on all those who serve our fellow Americans. The president asked the council to concentrate, through task forces, on six topical areas: economic recovery and domestic poverty, fatherhood and healthy families, environment and climate change, interreligious cooperation, global poverty and development, and reform of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (You can see the full report on the recommendations in this PDF.) I served on the last task force, which sought to put the OFNP on a more legal and constitutionally sound footing.
Throughout the year, the Reform of the OFNP task force deliberated passionately and thoughtfully around how best to enable the president to keep his campaign promises not to allow taxpayer money to be used to discriminate. These deliberations were done by a a group that represented the broad array of religious and political thought in our country. We sought consensus in service of the common good, without resorting to lowest common denominators. Our final recommendations will, if implemented, go a long way toward reassuring the American people that even as it seeks to meet the needs of our hurting neighbors in these troubled times, their government will protect all communities, secular and faith-based; that people’s right to believe or not believe will not be infringed upon in order to receive services; and finally, that their tax dollars will never be used to discriminate against them.
Specifically, we recommended:
- strategic procedures for the government to train service providers and to inform social service beneficiaries of the important church-state constraints on federally funded programs;
- a government policy to make all beneficiaries aware of their right to receive services through secular providers if they are not comfortable receiving services through faith-based providers
- a change to the process for certification as 501(c)3 charitable organizations so that it is (1) simplified and (2) requires faith-based organizations to separately incorporate under 501(c)3 in order to receive federal funds, thus effectively separating federal funding from those of congregations and other faith-based organizations;
- that the administration clarify prohibited uses of direct federal financial assistance;
- that the administration equally emphasize separation requirements and protections for religious identity; and
- mechanisms to improve transparency and monitoring of compliance.
We met last week with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, USAID administrator Raj Shah, chief of staff to the National Security Council Denis McDonough, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, and White House domestic policy chief Melody Barnes to deliver and explain our recommendations. We are confident from our interactions that they will be taken seriously.
An important issue — that of whether federally funded organizations can discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs — was taken off the table for the Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and placed, I understand, with the Department of Justice. We will all need to remain vigilant in advocating with the administration that no federal funds should ever be used to discriminate.
It has been a privilege to serve the country and the president in this way. It has also been a loving responsibility to seek to represent the needs and hopes of LGBT people in the process. I have felt your support in contentious times, benefited from the wise counsel of many in our communities, and hope I have borne witness to the strength and compassion of all our LGBT communities as I have represented you on the President’s Advisory Council.