If the claimed mission and structure of the office are the same, the pivotal difference between the two presidents’ approaches was supposed to be hiring policy. President Bush advocated exempting religious organizations that accept taxpayer funding from regulations forbidding religious discrimination in hiring. President Obama said he would overturn that policy.
“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,” he said on the stump. But when he rolled out his office in February, he tabled that issue, sending it to the Justice Department for review. The Bush administration also asked Justice to handle the issue.
Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was a vocal critic of Mr. Bush’s faith-based office. Now, under Mr. Obama, he serves on the advisory council’s task force to improve the functioning of the office. Explaining his turnaround, he said he doesn’t view Mr. Obama’s office as partisan—the way Mr. Bush’s was. But acknowledging that there was no substantive difference between the offices yet, Mr. Lynn said: “We have a guarded optimism that when the advisory council, Justice and the White House act and get down to the nitty gritty, they will make this a constitutionally protected program. However, we have no proof of that and no guarantee.”
Now that is the audacity of hope.