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The White House’s faith-based office is defending itself against critics who complain that not much has changed since president bush was in office.
In recent weeks, the complaints against the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships have mounted. The 25-member Coalition Against Religious Discrimination has accused Obama of failing to keep campaign promises. A prominent church-state separationist has questioned why members of the office’s advisory board are allowed to vote on policies that will affect their own organizations. And some religious leaders have wondered if the office is just for show, or worse — political gain.
“There is a broad stability in the way things are done — not that everybody is happy about that,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who helped Bush open the original faith-based office and serves on a task force advising the new one.
Joshua DuBois, the director of the office, countered critics by saying the office has done “a tremendous amount of work” and involved religious organizations in thousands of interfaith service projects.
“There will always be critics, but we are taking the long view about the impact the president wants us to have,” he said. “Through our White House office and our 12 agency centers, we have formed concrete, measurable partnerships with local organizations to serve people in need.”
After criticisms were leveled at DuBois’ office earlier this month (Feb.), the White House posted online a defense of its first-year accomplishments, saying it had “built partnerships” between federal agencies and local nonprofits, coordinated Obama’s “fatherhood agenda,” brought people of different faiths together, and worked with local groups to respond to the economic recession.
The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination applauded the council’s work on preventing “unwelcome proselytizing” at government-funded charities. But it is outraged that Obama has yet to fulfill his campaign promise to prevent grant recipients from hiring people based on their religion.
“Despite your straightforward, clear statement … in 2008, we have seen no progress at all toward resolving this important issue that taints the faith-based initiative,” the coalition wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to the president.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, questioned Obama’s assertion at the National Prayer Breakfast that his administration has “turned the faith-based initiative around” since he took office.
“A few tweaks on the margins don’t amount to real change,” Lynn wrote in The Huffington Post.
The advisory council is finalizing its yearlong work on more than 60 recommendations and will present them to senior government officials in March or April.
“We set up the advisory council task force on reform of the office … to produce recommendations on some of the very issues that folks have been highlighting,” DuBois said.
He added it will be up to his office and other officials to “discern which recommendations to move forward on.”
In addition, the White House said, the faith-based office is helping prepare a report on abortion, and listening to a wide range of voices — from Sikhs to evangelicals — on a host of other policy issues.
Shakil Haider, chairman of the Midland Islamic Council, said he has worked with officials from the faith-based office within the Department of Homeland Security to attend emergency preparedness seminars and distribute brochures to mosques in Kansas and Missouri.
“They were actually surprised at how much the government was cooperating with Islamic centers,” said Haider, the former chairman of a Kansas mosque. “This is new for us. Nobody approached us before like this.”
Joe Jones, founder and president of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, said he has worked with DuBois and other federal and local officials on events that have focused attention on responsible fatherhood, including three regional town hall meetings, and reducing domestic violence.
“This administration has shown me that they are credible,” said Jones, a member of the advisory council’s task force on fatherhood.
“They’ve been open and transparent in terms of hearing from other groups.”
But others contend the conversation tends to often be one-sided, with the government, rather than faith groups, doing most of the talking.
The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, a member of the advisory council, has argued that the office and council are about more than politics. She said critics may focus on particular issues, such as the contentious hiring one, but the council has reached consensus on a wide range of other matters.
“We’re working hard and there are significant leaders representing huge numbers of constituents and efforts all over the country,” said Chemberlin, the president of the National Council of Churches. “And by the time we’re done, there’ll be more than 50 recommendations to the president. … I think it’s a huge step in the right direction.”
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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