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Obama's Faithful Flock | The Nation

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Obama's Faithful Flock

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ZINA SAUNDERS

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Sarah Posner
Sarah Posner is senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes a blog about religion and politics. Follow her...

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When President Barack Obama announced the appointment of Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG), to lead the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), many progressive activists were alarmed. Kelley, a Catholic social justice advocate who has said that abortion is a social ill to be combated along with torture, poverty and war, is on record supporting restrictions on abortion access and has refused to challenge church doctrine prohibiting abortion and birth control.

Writing in Salon, Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, lauded Kelley as "a distinguished advocate of healthcare reform and the rights of poor people" who "has much to offer in government--but not at HHS." Jon O'Brien, current president of Catholics for Choice, stated publicly, "We need those working in HHS to rely on evidence-based methods to reduce the need for abortion...unfortunately, as seen from her work at CACG, Ms. Kelley does not fit the bill."

For progressives, secularists and feminists, Kelley's appointment is the latest in a series of alarming developments at the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP), which oversees a network of faith-based and neighborhood partnership centers at eleven federal agencies (including the one Kelley will head). During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would expand George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives because "the challenges we face today...are simply too big for government to solve alone." But he also promised to end the constitutional violations of Bush's faith-based programs by requiring that federal dollars that go to churches, temples and mosques "only be used on secular programs" and by forbidding programs that accept federal money from proselytizing or discriminating against people in hiring on the basis of religion.

Since he has taken office, however, Obama has backtracked or stalled on these pledges. Perhaps more disturbing, Obama's OFBNP, while still a work in progress, is plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability and has seemingly already been exploited as a tool for rewarding religious constituencies with government jobs--exactly the problems that marked Bush's faith-based initiative.

Indeed, the structure of Obama's OFBNP looks quite similar to Bush's: a White House office (now under the direction of 26-year-old Joshua DuBois, the former religious outreach director of the Obama campaign) guides the project overall. Mara Vanderslice, founder of the Matthew 25 PAC, which supported Obama, works with DuBois. In addition, the centers at federal agencies oversee the disbursements of grants to faith-based and community nonprofits, some of which will, in turn, train faith-based organizations.

The Obama administration has said the project will not just dole out money; it also intends to form nonfinancial partnerships with faith-based and community groups to deliver social services. But the financial relationships remain. For example, although Obama's 2010 budget eliminated the Compassion Capital Fund, the pot of money administered to faith-based groups through HHS in the Bush era, $50 million has been authorized in the stimulus bill for a new Strengthening Communities Fund, which will be disbursed to nonprofits and state, city, county and tribal governments to train faith-based and other nonprofits to help "low-income individuals secure and retain employment, earn higher wages, obtain better-quality jobs and gain greater access to state and Federal benefits and tax credits."

Watchdogs are concerned that, as with Bush's fund, controls are insufficient to ensure constitutional protections, transparency or accountability. "These problems will persist until this administration stops operating under the Bush-era executive orders and regulations that still govern the faith-based programs," says Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way.

Within particular federal agencies, many other grants are available to faith-based organizations, which compete for funding with secular organizations on the Bush-era "level playing field." At HHS, under Alexia Kelley's purview, tens of millions of dollars in grants are available to faith-based groups for projects including substance abuse treatment, mental health services, HIV prevention, family planning and even research on the influence of religiosity and spirituality on health-risk behaviors in children and adolescents. Although the Obama administration eliminated federal funding for abstinence-only sex education, the HHS website directs potential grantees to abstinence-only funding available through state governments.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example--where Obama has placed his campaign's Catholic outreach guru, Mark Linton, at the helm of the faith-based center--religious organizations are invited to apply for a variety of housing-related grants. At the Justice Department the faith-based office advertises grants available to faith-based groups to "provide assistance to victims of crime, prisoners and ex-offenders, and women who suffer domestic violence [and] initiatives to target gang violence and at-risk youth."

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