President Obama may not have continued George W. Bush’s over-reliance on religious organizations to carry out the functions of government. But six years into the “most transparent administration,” the activities and budget of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships remain troublingly opaque.
“If the body of Christ is gonna raise its hand and strike a blow against poverty, against disease…then I want that hand to hold within it every tool at its disposal, including the tool of a servant-led government. And that’s the job of my office.” That’s how Joshua DuBois, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Barack Obama’s first term, described the role of this executive office. Today, 13 federal agencies—including the U.S Departments of Education, Labor, Justice, and Homeland Security—are home to faith-based centers that redirect millions of public dollars to religious organizations. These faith-based liaison offices serve a variety of functions for religious organizations in communities, including: offering information and technical assistance for accessing government grants, providing training opportunities, and connecting these organization with schools, businesses, prisons, and more.
But it is the White House Office that has drawn the most scrutiny, since that is where the President defines the executive branch’s relationship with religious organizations. Since their inception, faith-based initiatives have served as a means for the government to funnel public dollars to private religious organizations, raising (in some cases) issues of transparency and church-state separation. My look into this historically controversial office, now run by religious liberty scholar Melissa Rogers, reveals that unfortunately—as far as transparency is concerned—little has changed.
In a July 2014 article for The Nation, journalist Andy Kopsa exposed a continued basic lack of transparency under Obama, as well as some revelations about what alarming activities this lack of transparency has kept hidden. Political Research Associates senior fellow for religious freedom, Frederick Clarkson, also researched some dangerous implications of the faith-based privatization of public services in The Public Eye magazine last year. Kopsa and Clarkson’s work raised questions about the White House Office’s use of federal tax dollars and potential violations of both federal law and the idea—foundational to the nation—of the separation between church and state. Though the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is still funded, there is little evidence that Obama is delivering on his promise to make faith-based partnerships accountable or transparent.
What Is the Office’s budget?
In order to find out the current budget for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, I contacted the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute. In an emailed statement, Communications Associate Anthony Martinez replied, “We don’t have the information you requested, nor do any of our experts know of any kind of published source where it can be found.”
I also called the White House’s Budget Review Division and spoke to a representative who promised to promptly return my call. After leaving several further messages, however, she never got back in touch.
The faith-based liaison offices within the Cabinet were more responsive to my requests. Hoping to track down concrete budget information, I emailed all 14 faith-based centers, housed within 13 executive branch agencies and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
“We don’t have the information you requested, nor do any of our experts know of any kind of published source where it can be found.”
I received one return-to-sender error message (the listed email address for Josh Dickson, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce Center for Faith Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, leads nowhere), and of the 13 emails that were delivered, I received four responses with direct answers to my request. The Centers for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Veteran Affairs, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development all sent me their budgets for 2014 and 2015, which ranged from $339,000 to $1,181,0001.
The remaining nine emails were not answered.
These faith-based centers operate as a liaison between religious and community groups and the federal government. They carry out executive mandates ensuring religious groups have equal access to government grants for public services within the scope of their department. Ultimately, these centers are implementing federal mandates. The drive to deepen partnerships between religious groups and government emanates from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
If neither a researcher nor budget policy experts are able to track down basic budget information, what else about the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is unavailable to the public?
The program’s troubled origins
Explicit partnerships between religious organizations and government began with the passage of “Charitable Choice” legislation as part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act during the Clinton Administration. For the first time, religious institutions could compete for federal grants on an equal basis with secular groups. As Clarkson describes, Charitable Choice was the forerunner to President George W. Bush’s more explicit faith-based initiatives:
“[I]t was the first time Congress gave explicit legislative direction to federal agencies to provide religious institutions with grants and contracts to carry out federal programs on an equal basis with other groups—without requiring that religious groups separate out their religious agendas. Critics presciently observed this risked problematic entanglements between church and state. Even President Clinton was concerned enough to issue signing statements as Charitable Choice provisions were added to federal legislation. On one such occasion, he said that his administration would not ‘permit governmental funding of religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally funded program] activities,’ because such funding would violate the Constitution.”
Just nine days after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he proclaimed faith-based organizations “indispensable,” and unveiled the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Bush adopted a controversial provision exempting religiously-affiliated grant recipients from federally mandated equal opportunity hiring practices – a matter DuBois described as “entirely unresolved.” President Bush’s exemption for religious groups continues to date.
Even more concerning, the Bush Administration never built any transparency into the Faith-Based Office, nor did it publish evidence of the initiatives’ purported positive impact on the welfare of poor communities.
Then there is the issue of religious influence. During his candidacy, Obama promised that the grant money would not be used to proselytize or discriminate against the people it was supposedly designed to help. But this promised restraint on the part of federal-funded religious groups never materialized. Abstinence-only and Responsible Fatherhood initiatives continue to secure millions in federal dollars. These in turn fund anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers and anti-LGBTQ organizations like the Children’s AIDS Fund, which advocates ex-gay therapy. Unfortunately, as investigative journalist Andy Kopsa found, “an entire federally funded evangelical economy took root during the Bush years, and under Obama it continues to thrive.”
Considering the prickly issue of government and religious entanglement embedded in these debates, the need for transparency into the activities of this office is especially pressing. We are six years into the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration.” Despite the volatile nature of these partnerships and the demonstrated need for public accountability, the President’s promise seems to have failed to materialize for this White House Office.
 The four departments that responded to my request provided the following information:
- Department of HUD Faith- Based Office Budget:
- 2014: $1,170,000
- 2015: $1,181,000
- Department of Agriculture Faith- Based Office Budget:
- 2014: $366,983
- 2015: $373,000
- Department of Justice Faith- Based Office Budget:
- 2014: $339,120
- 2015: $344,330
- Department of Veteran Affairs Faith-Based Office Budget:
- 2014: $620,000
- 2015: $479,000