The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, formerly the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was established by President George W. Bush just nine days after he took office in January 2001. The office is part of the Executive Office of the President, responsible for expanding the opportunities for faith-based and community organizations to receive federal funding. Through these faith-based and community organizations, the federal government can award grants through 11 agencies and provide social services to individuals. These agencies include the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Agriculture, Commerce and Veterans Affairs, plus the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Small Business Administration.
There is a traditional belief in the United States that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the use of federal funds to promote religion, and that organizations and programs that receive federal funding are not allowed to use religion as a criterion for choosing employees or beneficiaries. President Bush’s effort to have religious organizations more involved in government-supported social programs has drawn considerable criticism from libertarians and others claiming the initiative violates the basic tenet of church-state separation.
On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, that included a provision, Section 104, which allowed the states to use federal funds to hire religious groups to provide social services. This provision, known as the “Charitable Choice” provision, also gave religious groups that receive federal grants the right to display religious symbols, scripture and icons while delivering government social services. In December, George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, became the first governor to order these new standards to be used on a state level. Nine days after his inauguration as president of the United States, Bush, by executive order, created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (WHOFBCI). He also ordered audits of various government departments to identify rules and regulations that barred religious groups from delivering social services. The subsequent report, Unlevel Playing Field, incorrectly stated that religious groups were banned from taking part in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program. In fact, two-thirds of the program’s sponsors were religious organizations. The report also incorrectly claimed that no faith-based organization received funding for HUD’s Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program, when, in reality, the faith-based group Habitat for Humanity International received more than half of the program’s funding in fiscal year 2000.
“A little bit frustrated” with congressional delays in passing a law that supported his initiative, Bush, in December 2002, issued a new set of executive orders to stop what he said was discrimination against religious groups obtaining government contracts. “I did it on my own,” he boasted on March 3, 2004. These orders gave religious organizations funded by the government the right to give employment preference to members of their own religion and they exempted these groups from rules that forbid religious discrimination. At the time, Bush explained, “No government policy can put hope in people’s hearts or a sense of purpose in people’s lives.”
The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was created as the result of these Executive Orders:
The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships oversees programs throughout the federal government that seek to direct government opportunities for faith-based social services organizations. The federal government awards grants through 11 agencies to faith-based and community organizations. Participating federal agencies are the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Agriculture, Commerce and Veterans Affairs, plus the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Small Business Administration.
According to President Bush’s wishes, the office is responsible for opening up the competitive federal grant-making process. These agencies have adopted several methods of making this possible, by making information more accessible, providing training and technical assistance, broadening program eligibility, changing regulations, and streamlining grant applications. Additionally, the White House hosts regional conferences and workshops to support faith-based and community social service programs. These events provide participants with information about the government grants process and available funding opportunities and an overview of the legal responsibilities that come with the receipt of federal funds.
As a Democratic candidate for President, Barack Obama expressed support for the office, drawing complaints from those who believe these programs discriminate based on faith and raise questions on the separation of church and state. As President, Obama followed through with his campaign pledge to expand the office—calling for increased federal spending and a larger agenda—and change its name to the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He appointed as the office’s new director Joshua DuBois, a Pentecostal minister and former religious affairs director for the Obama presidential campaign. DeBois’s stated mission was to coordinate social service outreach with faith-based organizations, focusing primarily on poverty. Obama also established within the office an Advisory Council composed of 25 religious and secular leaders and scholars from varying backgrounds. Each member of the Council is appointed to a one-year term. The Council’s agenda has included climate change, human trafficking, military conflicts, and the need to reduce abortions.
President Obama established four key priorities for the office:
The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships publishes several written resources to assist grassroots groups in navigating the federal grants system. These include Federal Funds for Organizations That Help Those In Need (pdf) (a catalog of federal grant opportunities), Guidance to Faith-Based and Community Organizations on Partnering with the Federal Government (pdf) (a guide to the legal responsibilities associated with the receipt of federal funds), and Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations (pdf) (outlines the protection of religious hiring rights).
Some of the featured programs of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships include:
Compassion Capital Fund, which serves as a bridge between the federal government and faith-based and community organizations. Intermediary organizations provide technical assistance and capacity-building sub-awards.
Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program, which makes competitive grants to applicants serving populations with substantial numbers of children of incarcerated parents and to support the establishment and operation of mentoring programs.
Access to Recovery (ATR), which is a three-year competitive discretionary grant program funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. ATR provides vouchers to clients for the purchase of substance abuse clinical treatment and recovery support services.
US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which works with international, national and local leaders worldwide to support prevention, treatment, and care programs.
The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which is an initiative that encourages institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith and community service programming on campus.
The National Conversation on Responsible Fatherhood and Strong Communities, which launched a national fatherhood tour to hear from local communities about how we can encourage personal responsibility and strengthen our nation’s families.
The agency’s partnership with the White House Council on Women and Girls, which seeks to support women and children, reduce unintended pregnancies, support maternal and child health, and reduce the need for abortion.
From the Web Site of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships
As of 2010, more than $22 billion per year was distributed by the federal government to more than 50 programs supporting education, community development, basic nutrition, and other social services. In 2007, the federal government provided more than 19,000 direct, competitive awards to American nonprofit organizations to aid the homeless, at-risk youth, recovering addicts, returning offenders, people infected of affected by HIV/AIDS, and others. These grants totaled more than $15.3 billion. Faith-based organizations won more than 3,200 grants in 2007, totaling over $2.2 billion.
For fiscal year 2005, more than $2.2 billion in competitive social service grants were awarded to faith-based organizations. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2005, the total dollar amount of all grants awarded to FBOs increased by 21%. The majority of these grants were distributed through state agencies to local organizations in the form of formula grants.
Obama Council Appointments
Some religious leaders expressed disappointment in 2011 over President Barack Obama’s selections for his advisory council on faith-based programs. Critics complained too many leaders of Christian and Jewish faiths were selected, leaving out those who practice Islam or Hinduism. The White House responded by saying Obama would choose more panel members at a later date.
By 2012, the faith-based panel was vacant. The second round of promised appointments never materialized, “and the panel basically faded into the woodwork,” according to Rick Cohen at Nonprofit Quarterly. Cohen added that it seemed like Obama wasn’t taking the panel very seriously.
A few months later, Obama indicated he was still interested in faith-based initiatives and released a series of recommendations for reforming the program.
Obama's Faith-Based Advisers: Round Two (by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service)
President Obama’s Faith-Based Council Drops Out of Sight (by Rick Cohen, Nonprofit Quarterly)
Obama’s Faith-Based Failure (by Sarah Posner, Salon)
Council’s Director and Obama Reject Removal of “Under God”
Through the head of his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, President Barack Obama rejected demands in 2011 from atheists to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Joshua DuBois, the office’s executive director, responded to a petition calling for the removal of “Under God” by saying Obama supports the religious rights of all Americans as well as the separation of church and state.
But, DuBois added, the president also believes religion plays an important role in public life, which is why he wants to keep “Under God” in place. He also supports having “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, DuBois said.
The White House Responds to Petition to Remove ‘Under God’ from Pledge of Allegiance (by Hermant Mehta, Friendly Atheist)
Obama Supports Forcing Atheists’ Kids To Pledge Oaths To God (by Peregrin Wood, Irregular Times)
Obama Accused of Using the Council for His Own Agenda
Conservatives have repeatedly criticized President Barack Obama claiming he has used the Office of Faith-based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships to further his political agenda.
The Weekly Standard accused of Obama of attempting to use the office as a “mechanism for nationwide community organizing.” The American Thinker claimed Obama intended to use the office to turn the American people against Israel.
Along these lines, a task force charged in 2009 with coming up with recommendations for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships said it should “create a working group of multi-religious and community organizations focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to advise administration officials at the National Security Council and the State Department on a just resolution of the conflict.”
Still other conservatives believed Obama would link the office to his “radical” environmental policies in order to push “global warming, climate change, and green initiatives on America’s churches,” according to Hyscience.
Obama Abuses Faith Office To Promote His Radical Agenda (by Ed Lasky, American Thinker)
Faith-Based Obama (Washington Post Op-Ed)
Faith-Based Reform Veers Into Israeli Policy (by Rebecca Dube, The Jewish Daily Forward)
Stimulus Funds Went to Religious Groups
Conservatives branded President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan anti-religious. Little did they know that faith-based organizations would be among those that received funding from the billion-dollar program.
Of the $787 billion allocated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, at least $140 million went to faith-based groups. In fact, the Obama administration didn’t just make stimulus funds available to religious organizations—it encouraged them to apply for the grants.
Federal agencies conducted outreach to faith-based groups and explained how to apply for the grants. Sometimes, federal officials “stepped in when the state officials who distribute the money were reluctant to spend it on groups associated with churches and other religious establishments,” according to Politico.
Obama's Stimulus Pours Millions Into Faith-Based Groups (by Ben Smith and Byron Tau, Politico)
Is the Stimulus Act Anti-Religious? (by Tobin Grant, Christianity Today)
Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Raises Constitutional Issues
When President George W. Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, critics pointed out that millions in federal grants have gone to ministries operated by political supporters of the Bush administration or have been given to minority pastors who recently committed their support. Others claimed that legitimate faith-based groups like Pagans and Sikhs were excluded, while other religions like Christianity were more readily funded. On June 25, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation that executive orders may not be challenged on Establishment Clause grounds by individuals whose sole claim to legal standing is that they are taxpayers. Both of Bush’s appointees to the court, John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito, sided with the majority.
Religion for Captive Audiences, With Taxpayers Footing the Bill (by Diana B. Henriques and Andrew Lehren, New York Times)
Faith-Based Director Resigns After Controversy-Riddled Reign
In April 2006, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, H. James Towey, resigned to become President of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania. Towey, who had served as legal counsel to Mother Theresa of Calcutta for 12 years, led efforts to implement 16 regulations designed to lift roadblocks to federal agency funding of religious organizations. Those administrative changes marked a major shift in the separation of church and state, as noted in a report by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, “The Expanding Administrative Presidency: George W. Bush and the Faith-Based Initiative.” (pdf)
Religious Watchdog Group Calls for Closing of Faith-Based Office (by Melanie Hunter,
Former Faith-Based Employee Reveals All in Book
David Kuo, a former member of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, revealed in his 2006 book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, that the program was used for political purposes, and that the President did not fulfill his promises to put enough money into the initiative. Kuo revealed that the Bush administration used evangelical Christians to win votes, but then privately ridiculed them once in office, saying, “National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ridiculous, out of control, and just plain goofy.” In particular, Kuo quotes Karl Rove, the President’s long-serving political adviser and mentor, as describing evangelical Christians as “nuts.” The White House rejected the claims.
Aide says White House mocked evangelicals (by Julian Borger, The Guardian)
Department of Homeland Security Receives Office of Faith-Based Initiatives
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, President George W. Bush added another office of faith-based initiatives in the Department of Homeland Security. Though many believed that this was another excuse for the federal government to funnel more than $2 billion to religious organizations, others argued that the government was using disasters like Hurricane Katrina to preach to people in order to receive help.
DHS Gets New Faith-Based Office (by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, Fox News)
Obama Wants to Continue Bush's Faith-Based Programs
As the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, in an attempt to reach out to conservative voters, said he wanted to expand President George W. Bush’s faith-based programs, drawing complaints from those who believe these programs discriminate based on faith and raise questions on the separation of church and state. Obama’s plan was to get religious charities more involved in government anti-poverty programs. He does not approve using religious preferences in the hiring and firing of employees, nor the using federal money to proselytize. Obama proposed renaming it the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, moving away from hosting large conferences, and empowering larger religious charities to mentor smaller ones in their communities. He also proposed a $500 million per year program to provide summer learning for one million poor children to help close achievement gaps with white and wealthier students.
Obama wants to expand faith-based programs (Associated Press)
Obama Wants to Expand Role of Religious Groups (by Jeff Zeleny and Brian Knowlton, New York Times)
Greater Transparency and Other Reforms
President Barack Obama signed an executive order in November 2011 that reformed the Office of Faith-based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships to improve transparency and clarify rules for religious groups that receive federal grants.
Among the changes were ways to strengthen the constitutional and legal footing of public-private partnerships, to clarify prohibited uses of direct financial assistance, to protect the religious identity of faith-based clients, and to assure the religious liberty rights of clients and beneficiaries of federal social service funds.
The executive order did not address controversial questions regarding whether grant recipients can hire and fire based on religion. The administration chose instead to deal with those questions on a case-by-case basis.
The following year, the White House issued another report that sought to address public/private partnerships between the government and faith-based groups. But church-state watchdog groups said the document left critical questions unanswered and did not resolve the issue of religious groups’ ability to discriminate in hiring and firing of workers.
Obama Signs Order To Reform Faith-Based Office (by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service)
Faith-based Panel Submits Recommendations (by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service)
A Fair Fight (by Lisa Miller, Daily Beast)
White House Releases Public/Private Guidelines for Faith-based Groups (by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service)
President Barack Obama’s choice for taking over the reconfigured Office of Faith-Based Initiatives (now known as the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) was a 26-year-old Pentecostal associate pastor named Joshua DuBois. He assumed the position in February 2009.