After months of work, President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is about to send him dozens of proposals on revamping the White House’s faith-based program. The proposals will also set priorities for the office and will renew debate — and media coverage — of this controversial initiative.

Polls show that the faith-based concept remains popular among the public, just as it was when the program began under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. But church-state questions about how to funnel taxpayer dollars to religious institutions have bedeviled the White House program from the start. Obama campaigned on a pledge to bar funds from houses of worship that would use the money to proselytize or discriminate in hiring on the basis of a prospective employee’s religion and beliefs.

But those principles have proved difficult to codify in black-and-white regulations. As a result, Obama’s faith-based office has been accused on the one hand of allowing too much freedom for religious groups that receive federal funds, and on the other of not allowing religious groups enough leeway to use the funds as they see fit. Others have criticized the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships for not moving quickly enough given the state of the economy and the increasing social welfare needs, or for not giving faith leaders enough influence.

Certainly, the faith-based initiative that was a hallmark of the Bush White House is not going to disappear under Obama. In fact, the program will expand its mission to “foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world,” according to the White House news release in February 2009 announcing the revamped office. How that will play out for houses of worship and religious institutions across the country that provide social services is a topic of much debate, even after Obama approves or rejects the proposals being sent to him by the advisory council.

This edition of ReligionLink provides background on the debate, as well as resources and experts for covering the changing landscape of the faith-based initiative in the Obama administration.

Why it matters

Finding the proper balance in the relationship between church and state is one of the most difficult legal, political and cultural challenges in American society — and in many respects, the faith-based initiative is emblematic of that struggle. Moreover, in an economic crisis like the one the nation faces today, houses of worship and other religious institutions are considered critical to the social welfare of a growing number of people.

Quick links

See a list of the six task force topics of concern and the 25 members and leaders of the Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who serve one-year terms.

Read about the mission of the OFBNP and find links to the four main policy goals of the office.

See a Feb. 22, 2010, Washington Post online article about the council’s proposals. The piece includes a link to a document with the full 73-page report as well as an excerpt with some of the main points related to church-state issues.