LGBT Leaders Weigh Obama's Faith-Based Initiative

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.

Frank Page, for
example, is past president of the socially conservative
Southern Baptist Convention, which has close ties to Exodus
International -- an organization that attempts to
“free” gays from “homosexuality
through the power of Jesus Christ,” according to its
website.

HRC's Knox said
the council’s makeup was reminiscent of the
president’s continuing approach to creating
dialogue.

“What
we’re seeing is a pattern that the President is going
to make all of us talk to each other,” Knox
said, noting that LGBT activists have already had
occasion to take issue with President Obama’s
associations including homophobic gospel singer Donnie
McClurkin during the campaign and Rev. Rick Warren at
the inauguration.

“What
he’s saying to us all is, I expect you all to come to
the table and seek the common good. It’s our
role as leaders of the LGBT community to serve in that
way but also to be clear that the common good does not mean
looking just for what’s good for the majority of
people, but really what’s good for
everybody.”

Whether the
council is able to effectively recommend policies that
benefit all Americans without disenfranchising certain
segments remains to be seen. Fred Davie, reached by
phone Friday, told Advocate.com he was confident the
council could work together.

“If we
stick to the president’s fourfold mandate and hear
the words that President Obama spoke about trying to
create mercy in the gray areas, I think we’ll
do just fine,” he said. At the press conference
Thursday, President Obama said the program’s
focus was on making community groups an active part of
the economic recovery, supporting women and children
and reducing unwanted pregnancies, helping fathers support
their families, and fostering interfaith dialogue.

“We’ll be making recommendations about how
government policy should be formed so that
there’s greater participation and greater
accountability of and from community groups,”
Davie said, adding that the office would have no say
in who receives money -- a departure from how funding was
handled by the Bush administration.

Davie, who
attended Yale Divinity School and was ordained as a
Presbyterian minister, is no stranger to the Obama team. The
campaign sought Davie out following then-candidate
Obama’s announcement of the faith-based program
last July and eventually asked Davie if he would speak
to the transition team about his experience at
Public/Private Ventures with promoting community
groups, after-school mentor programs, and workforce
development.

“Over the
course of my conversations with them, it became clear that
I’m an openly gay man,” he said,
“and they thought that added to the richness of
perspectives and they welcomed me both as the president of
PPV and because of the perspective I could provide
coming from the GLBT community.”

Davie said he
believed that both Joshua Dubois and President Obama
intended the LGBT community to have “full and
complete inclusion” in this initiative and
added that he saw “many opportunities to energize
advocacy work” on behalf of LGBT people.
“I will certainly add that perspective to this
council,” he said.

Knox hoped more
faith leaders from the community would be appointed to
the council and said they were pressing the point with the
White House, though he declined to discuss the
specifics of those conversations.

“I do
think the president is trying to do the best he can to
create policies that will help everyone within his
orientation of justice and fairness and
equality,” Knox said, “and we certainly want
to help him be successful in that. But we can only
help him if we’re at the table.”

Asked if there
were compromises to be struck with the Christian right on
LGBT concerns, Knox drew a distinction between council
members like Frank Page and those who are more
moderate-to-progressive, such as Joel Hunter of the
Florida-based Northland Church or Jim Wallis of
Sojourners in Washington, D.C.

“My
experience of interacting with evangelical leaders is that
some are further along in their honest understanding
of who LGBT people really are,” he said, noting
that some Christian conservatives are wrestling with
how to reconcile being part of a group that “exists
in large part to hate LGBT people” and yet
“serving a Christ who is about inclusion and
love unconditionally.”

Knox referenced
the fact that Joel Hunter had signed onto a statement
calling for passage of employment protections for lesbians,
gays, and bisexuals, though it fell short of including
transgender people.

“For an
evangelical like Joel Hunter to come that far -- that
represents real movement,” he said.

Conservative
leaders who have shown movement on gay issues can also
suffer serious repercussions, he noted. One of the
Christian right’s most influential, Richard
Cizik, who was chief lobbyist and vice president of
governmental affairs for the National Association of
Evangelicals, was forced to resign last December after he
said he supported same-sex civil unions in a National
Public Radio interview with Terry Gross.

“They take
real risks in being part of these conversations, so we
should honor that risk even as we continue to press
them,” Knox said. “We can never give up
on them completely because what they need is education and
the time to digest what they have learned and come to terms
with it. It’s our role to keep pushing them to
not be satisfied with where they are today.”