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Since When Is the First Amendment an Afterthought?

Dena Sher,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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August 10, 2011

“If your focus is first and foremost serving people in need, then there’s not a tremendous amount of time left to debate the finer points of the church-state relationship.”

The Denver Post reported that Joshua DuBois, the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, made this alarming statement, at a recent event in Denver. These “finer points” are not a nuisance or an afterthought. They are critical to how government-funded social services are delivered. For instance, they are what ensure that you wouldn’t be turned away from a homeless shelter because you are not Christian. They are what ensure that you wouldn’t be forced to attend a worship service prior to getting a meal at a soup kitchen or taking part in ajob training program. These “finer points” protect people in need — and are required by the Constitution.

DuBois’s statement displayed a dangerous indifference toward the Constitution. Especially for someone who heads an office with a dubious mission and is specifically charged with consulting with White House and Justice Department lawyers to ensure that government funding of faith-based organizations is consistent with the law and the Constitution. In other words, the guy who is supposed to care deeply about the “finer points.”

Shortly after making that comment to the Denver Post, DuBois wrote a blog post that seemed intended to address the issue. The blog post, however, didn’t disavow in any way the statement reported in The Denver Post, and certainly didn’t make us (or others) feel any better. In essence, he said a whole lot of nothing.

DuBois gave a good account of the actions his office and the administration have taken to fulfill a professed commitment to the Constitution. Needless to say, we don’t agree with his assessment. After an advisory committee recommended necessary changes to improve protections for people in need who go to those government-funded homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and job training programs, the administration waited eight months to create a government working group to report on how to implement those recommended changes. That group’s report is now more than four months overdue. The result: The Obama administration has yet to implement the changes to George W. Bush administration’s “faith-based initiative” that would better ensure that prayer is not a part of job training and that if someone in need does not want to go to a Christian homeless shelter, he has a nonreligious option.

He also said that his office is committed to upholding our laws and our values. That’s the same, meaningless, nonanswer administration officials give to dodge any scrutiny on this issue. All the while the administration continues to allow government-funded religious institutions to discriminate in their hiring practices and maintains Bush-era rules that insufficiently protect people in need.

DuBois should have formally corrected the record and renounced his startling statement. His blog should have better explained his understanding of church-state separation and what his office actually does, beyond platitudes, to ensure this core constitutional principle is upheld. Over the years, we have been concerned about his seeming lack of interest in outreach to organizations like ACLU to assure us that the safeguards of church-state separation will be restored in government partnerships with faith-based organizations. This episode has done little to relieve our concerns.

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