November 17th, 2010
01:42 PM ET

Obama signs order clarifying church-state relationship

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Wednesday clarifying the ground rules for religious groups partnering with the federal government through the White House's controversial faith office.

The order says that religious organizations receiving federal funds must conduct explicitly religious activities in a time and place that are different from when and where they do government-financed work.

But the order also states that faith-based organizations receiving federal dollars may use their facilities to provide government-backed social services, even if those facilities include religious art, icons, scriptures and other religious symbols.

A religious group receiving federal money may also keep religious language in its name, select board members on a religious basis, and include religious references in its mission statements and other documents, the executive order says.

The White House framed the order as an attempt to separate religion from politics, saying in a news release that "decisions about financial awards must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference."

But a group that advocates strict church-state separation said the order did not go nearly far enough in that regard.

"I'm disappointed," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "This leaves much of George W. Bush's faith-based initiative in place. That's not the change many Americans hoped for when President Obama took office."

"I am particularly frustrated that President Obama still has done nothing to ban hiring bias by publicly funded religious charities," Lynn said in a statement. "That's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. No American should be denied a government-funded job because he or she holds the 'wrong' views about religion."

At the same time, Americans United applauded the order for requiring federal agencies to provide alternatives for people who do not want to receive social services at religious charities and praised a new requirement that faith groups receiving federal money be listed on government websites.

The White House faith office was launched by President George W. Bush in 2001 and was retained by Obama, to the disappointment of some church-state separation advocates. Obama tweaked the name of the office, calling it the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

While the Bush office was aimed mostly at helping to "level the playing field" for faith-based and nonprofit groups applying for federal money to tackle problems like poverty and substance abuse, Obama's faith office has focused on non-financial relationships with faith and nonprofit groups.

The office has come under fire from Bush administration officials, who say the White House is abusing it for political gain.

Responding to charges from those officials that a conference call Obama hosted with religious leaders on the new health care law crossed the line into political outreach, the White House said last month that "there could hardly be a more appropriate audience" for such a call.

"When congregants fall ill, faith communities come together to support their brothers and sisters in need," Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, wrote on the White House blog.

The White House response came after former Bush aides publicly criticized the conference call, saying it was an example of Obama abusing the office to win political support from religious leaders.

"According to the White House website, the faith-based office exists 'to more effectively serve Americans in need,'" Jim Towey, who directed Bush's faith office, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in September. "I guess that now means Americans in need of Democratic talking points on health care."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Church and state • Politics

soundoff (257 Responses)
  1. Dave

    Classic example of Obama's 'Change you can believe in' promises. What a fraud – in the literal sense of the word!

    November 17, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  2. LEB

    If Obama completely reversed Bush's faith-based initiatives offhand without any kind of compromise, there are many (ie Tea Party) who would be eager to call him a godless Communist and an enemy of religion, even though he himself is Christian. This was an acceptable compromise, both for respecting the various faiths of Americans, and for avoiding adding more fuel to the fires of vitriol and bile from his opposition.

    I say this, by the way, as an American atheist.

    November 17, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
    • Frogist

      @LEB: You're right about the impression it would make about Mr Obama. But I don't think this was a fair compromise considering they left out a clause about hiring bias. BTW I'm agnostic myself.

      November 18, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  3. Ruskinite

    Having a so-called "Faith Office" element to our government makes the USA no different than any Taliban, radical Muslim or other non-Christian led government of other countries.

    November 17, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
    • DanW

      Nearly every European state is officially Christian, yet you fail to mention them. Why? They are religious states that are open-minded, tolerant socially responsible and, yes, officially Christian. You can't just cite a few examples of radical religious states and then claim that Obama has made us one of them.

      November 17, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
    • Frogist

      @DanW: While I agree that Ruskinite's hyperbole was a bit out there, I think you might have to qualify your claim with some proof as I've never actually heard of most European states having Christianity-ruled govts.

      November 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  4. ddg000

    This office looks like a part of the big government we could do without.

    November 17, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
  5. Mark

    I'm a Christian and think a "faith office" is a horrible idea. Anytime politics and or government and (any) religion merge trouble is sure to ensue.

    November 17, 2010 at 6:41 pm |
  6. Steve (the real one)


    Well said and point taken!

    November 17, 2010 at 6:39 pm |
  7. i used to jam in Joe's garage

    The bible says. "The members of the church will be judged first and most harshly" as they should be.

    November 17, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
  8. Chris

    SEPARATION of church and state .... Good lord , arent corporations warping the government enough, we dont religious groups trying to get a piece of that pie too

    November 17, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  9. i used to jam in Joe's garage

    Its bad enough churches don't pay taxes now they get tax moneys given to them. What a crock! I would be ashamed to be a member of a big fancy church with 14 airconditioners running 7 days a week for 1 day of opinionated crap. When children in the same town don't have anything to eat or good clothes not to mention the homeless. Organized religion has done more damage to this world than any other bunch of hipocrites I know of. Frank Zappa said it best "TAX THE CHURCHES"

    November 17, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
    • McJesus

      Agreed. No church should be tax exempt. Tax the churches, then we can possibly think about making deals between the federal government giving tax dollars to fund non-denominational charity work done by churches. However requirements should be that said church must provide services to EVERYONE, not only those who believe in their specific rendition of the sky fairy story.

      November 17, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
    • Reallythough

      Sorry pal you got that wrong Churches do give to believers and non-believers alike. You just can't work there if you don't. Which to me should be the least of your worries since you obviously wouldn't apply there.

      November 17, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Reallythough: Oh if that were true. There was an article not two days ago about how Roman Catholic churches wanted to ensure that "their" money didn't go to people they didn't like. They wanted to keep their money from those awful organizations that have to do with "leftist agendas" because it smacks of "socialism"... Let's not pretend that all churches care about the well being of all people. As for working at the church, if you need a job, you need one, wherever it might turn up.

      November 18, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  10. Julien

    Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the people. It is the meth of the people!

    November 17, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
  11. McJesus

    MAGIC IS REAL. Winged humanoids live in the sky and red skinned horned cloven hoofed evil dudes live below the ground. No I did not take my medications today. I speak telepathically to an invisible man in the sky. He loves you.. but if you down bow down to his need to be worshipped, he gets jealous and tosses your behind into a boiling lake of lava where you can be tortured for eternity. Yes he loves you that much!

    November 17, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
    • DanW

      Aside from beng worthy of worship, the Lord requiures it from us, because we have a tendency to be like the thing we worship. Love money? You end up being a greedy scag? Worship s e x? You'll end up a deviant. God is good. Worship Him and in the end you will be too. That's why He wants our worship. It is for our good......Oh and the whole lake of fire thing? It was created for the devil. Follow him and you get his reward. It's your choice, not what God wants for you. Yes He loves you enough to allow you to reject Him and retain your autonomy.

      November 17, 2010 at 9:12 pm |
  12. jj

    There should not be a faith office in government. This country was based on the separation of church and state.

    November 17, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
  13. Reallythough

    If everyone would feed the homeless and help others in need on their own this wouldn't exist. SHUT UP your complaining about religious charities and others who help people and DO IT YOURSELF!!!!! Anything else you speak of is WORTHLESS!

    November 17, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
  14. Bill In STL

    And Finally read the first 2 paragraphs again. The Executive order says

    The order says that religious organizations receiving federal funds must conduct explicitly religious activities in a time and place that are different from when and where they do government-financed work.

    So, for all you seperatists, that means any outreach program or any program that is a government funded program must take place when no religous activity is taking place.

    Simple .... so don't get your knickers in a twist over this! 😉

    November 17, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
    • jj

      But if there are religious symbols on display during the outreach activity, there is a religious connection.

      November 17, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
    • Sum Dude

      You cannot separate a religion from its followers. The followers are the religion incarnate.

      And "earmarking" money is a meaningless joke, a completely deluded concept.
      Once money is given, who is to say that it actually goes where it is supposed to?

      If I hand you a five five-dollar bills and point to one that is supposed to be used for "non-religious purposes", you still have twenty-five dollars from which to disburse funds.

      The funds come from the amorphous ownership of money itself. There is nothing to say that any particular five-dollar bill is "the One". Giving federal money to fund anything by a religious organization is a tacit approval and support of that organization!!
      And allowing non-verbal proselytization through the use of religious icons is still proselytization. The message is still there.

      I am disappoint. -_-

      November 17, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
  15. dwighthuth

    What about removing all election machines or places of voting from religious facilities? One should not have to owrry about the fear of reprecussion based upon where they voted at for an election of which the fundamental religion's in America swarm to like throwing blood into a sea of hungry nursing and pregnant Mako Sharks.

    November 17, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
  16. Kim Batteau

    Keeping God out of public life is not going to solve our problems.

    November 17, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
    • McJesus

      Neither is keeping leprechauns out of public life.

      November 17, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
    • David

      Well at least the troll agrees.

      November 18, 2010 at 1:21 am |
  17. Jim

    No funds should go to any religious organization from the government! NO TAX BREAKS FOR CHURCHES!

    November 17, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
    • .

      no tax breaks for non-profits?

      November 17, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  18. bettie

    Yeah, Oklahomans banned Sharia Law. LOL!!!

    November 17, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  19. Liam

    W started this nonsense. Saying that "all faiths are recognized" is impossible. What about atheists? Should they have their money go to religion? SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE must be maintained. Look what happened in the middle-east where religion is law.

    November 17, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Sorry should have been posted to Liam. So, I say again. True but who just signed the order? It wasn't Bush!

      November 17, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
  20. Fr33d0mhawk

    Wait a minute... I thought Obama was trying to install Sharia Law, but 99% of the tax funded religious charities are Christian or Jewish. So much for the Obama Sharia Law lies and distortions, but the GOP and their panty police policies, striving to give government authority over the most intimate aspects of our existence is defintely Sharia, Christo-Sharia, Koresharia if you will.

    November 17, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      True but who just signed the order?

      November 17, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.