White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs field a few questions on President Obama’s faith-based initiative program. Reporters pressed him on the hiring protection issue. Read below:
Q Does the President believe in separation of church and state?
MR. GIBBS: He does.
Q Then why does he keep this religious office open in the White House?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the -- the President signed an executive order today that establishes under his administration an Office of Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships. The President spoke throughout the campaign about what he believed was important -- an important role that faith-based institutions play in providing things like Head Start, child care. He made it clear in his remarks at the prayer breakfast and throughout the campaign that all of these programs should adhere to constitutional principles such as -- as church and state. The order establishes specifically in the job description of the executive director the ability to look into, specifically with the White House Counsel and the Department of Justice, any legal concerns that are out there regarding hiring practices.
Q Well, are they across the board equivalent to a program which is nationwide and so forth, has no religious context?
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, say that one more time.
Q Are they competitive with the government program?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, again, I think in some cases you could go to -- you can go to a Head Start program that's run in the basement of a church. I think the President has long believed that the institutions of faith have a role in -- have a valuable role to play, but he also, as you asked me about, clearly believes in constitutional principles.
Q On the faith-based initiative, the previous administration believed organizations who had a faith-based focus could function best if they were free of certain federal anti-discrimination laws. This administration has a different point of view. Why do you believe these faith-based initiatives can succeed if they have to, let's say, for example, bring into their ranks employees that they're not as comfortable with, and under the previous administration, they were allowed some waivers and ability to --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as I said to Helen's question, the executive order that he signed, and in the job description of the executive director of the new office, provides a mechanism that didn't exist in order to look at all of the legal issues that are surrounding the hiring and the functionality of faith-based organizations as they help to deliver what the President believes is needed help. And I think the process that the President has put in place will allow us to evaluate all of those issues and meet the constitutional principles that the President holds in dear regard.
Q I'd like to follow up on the faith-based thing. Is this his final word on this? Or will he be perhaps issuing a decision on the hiring practices overall? Or is it his intent to have the executive director of the office review these?
MR. GIBBS: The intent and the -- the order provides specifically for the executive director working with the counsel and seeking advice from the Department of Justice to get involved in hammering out those issues.
Q Isn't that handing off a controversial decision? Why shouldn't he make a decision on this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think you can be reasonably assured, Jeff, that the decision that the White House makes will reflect the important principles that the President holds dear. I don't -- it's safe to say that we don't make a lot of decisions around here that the President disagrees with.
Q Robert, the President spoke this morning at the prayer breakfast about his own path to Christianity, how he discovered it, found it on the south side of Chicago. Does he still plan to join a church here in Washington, or what's the status of that?
MR. GIBBS: You know, I know that he has visited a couple of churches, obviously, around the inaugural, and I think there's -- he and Michelle would like to visit some more and figure out a congregation in the area that they can -- that they can worship in. I think the President spoke about his faith a lot in the campaign and I know he's -- I think he likely misses not having someplace regular to go to exercise that faith in church. Obviously, I think given the enormous problems that the country faces, it's quite safe to assume that prayer, even not in the confines of a church, is something that he practices regularly.
Obviously, the biggest controversy surrounding the faith based office has always been whether religious groups receiving federal dollars should be allowed to hire those with the same religious conviction or someone who may be, let's say, a homosexual. Critics say that amounts to discrimination. Under the Bush administration, faith based groups had this hiring protection. Thursday's executive order by President Obama doesn't change that…for now at least. Instead, at this point, any complaints about hiring decisions will be looked at on a case by case basis. The head of the faith based office will consult the Attorney General’s office on those matters.
Sounds to me like team Obama is trying to strike a sensible middle ground and see where all of this leads. A move like this won’t placate conservative Evangelicals entirely because Obama has to still build trust with them. On the left, I’m sure they feel a little disappointed because Obama didn’t simply strip out the hiring protection provision. This is what he said in a Zanesville Ohio speech last July:
Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion.
Here’s one thing for sure: the hiring protection issue will remain in the headlines throughout the Obama administration. This is just the first chapter.