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Obama’s Faith-Based Initiative: The Devil Is in the Details

by Gene Rothman --


The recent nationwide protests by gays and their allies in response to the same-sex marriage issue places President-elect Obama’s faith-based initiative in a potentially more visible—and problematic—position.

Although intended as a vehicle for job-creation based on pluralism and national unity around religious issues, one faultline stands out in particular: the grant recipient’s ability to hire its own staff. A core principle of the initiative states that in order to receive federal funds, the program must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws including the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But as one conservative group has noted, this could force recipients to hire those who reject the program’s core values. A religious group, for example, could be forced to hire an atheist. Some religious conservatives might also object to hiring gays or Muslims, or, if they do hire them, might make efforts to change their lifestyle or beliefs.

There are issues other than hiring practices that affect gays and other minorities, especially in treatment settings that often serve the target populations of such organizations. In one instance, a paraprofessional, working in an institutional setting with gay men, would not allow group participants in a therapy group to refer to their male partners with a masculine pronoun (“he” or “him.”) Instead, they were required to call them “she” or “her,” due to the preference and perspective of the group leader. In another instance, a paraprofessional chaplain-therapist working with a mentally ill client considered the influence of the devil as one potential cause for his hearing voices.

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It is, of course, possible to balance and to integrate faith-based and traditional treatment components in such programs. For example, a faith-based practitioner could conduct private sessions for members of his or her own faith in a separate component of the overall program. But no matter what accommodations are made, professional supervision and oversight are the critical ingredients to success in such program settings. Whether such oversight will be available, especially with funding shortages, is a critical question.

Additionally, many potential problems go beyond supervisory oversight and are based on policy. In some Christian-funded settings, non-Christians are required to attend Christian religious services; in other they are not. In either case, the minority status of the non-Christian participant is unduly emphasized either by inclusion in a religious service of a different faith or by isolation from the dominant group. Access to religious materials or clergy of one’s own faith can also be problematic, even with good faith efforts by dominant-religion staff. In several instances, Moslem participants, for example, reported being unable to secure a copy of a Koran.

For gays, both hiring practices and more traditional views opposing same-sex marriage on the part of larger (and better funded) religious organizations will make efforts of inclusion and non-discrimination even more treacherous. This is especially true if gay issues become a significant wedge-issue in America. Obama’s goal of unifying religious groups in a pluralistic model may not demand walking on water or having a camel pass through the eye of a needle, but it will require more than just hope and a prayer.

Gene Rothman

Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker who worked with homeless and incarcerated veterans in the latter part of his career. He is active with Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles (PDLA) and Families to Amend Three Strikes (FACTS.) He also writes an occasional monthly editorial for the Social Action/Social Justice Council published in the “NASW California News.” The opinions expressed here are his alone.