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LGBT Leaders
Weigh Obama's Faith-Based Initiative

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.

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 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."

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