Religious Leaders Express Concerns About White House Faith-Based Initiative

The National Religious Leadership Roundtable recently joined a growing chorus of faith-based voices concerned with government-funded religion. Several aspects of this initiative have been proposed with little clarification about keeping basic safeguards and protections in place that both serve both people in need and comply with the U.S. Constitution.

Forty members of the National Religious Leadership Roundtable (NRLR) met last month in Washington, D.C. and expressed several concerns about the proposed objectives of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. The NRLR is an interfaith coalition of faith-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) and allied organizations that together represent millions of people of faith in the United States. The NRLR sent a letter to the office's director, John DiIulio, requesting a meeting to discuss concerns surrounding the initiative.

"We support the President's desire to see compassionate and effective services delivered to people in need as smoothly as possible," the letter from the NRLR stated. "However, we believe that there should be safeguards in the plan to prevent anyone from being denied social services, job opportunities, or respectful treatment because of their faith or their sexual orientation."

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives has been charged with "eliminating legislative, regulatory, and other bureaucratic barriers that may impede effective faith-based services." Under current practices, many religious groups around the country, such as Catholic Charities, receive government funds to deliver social services. But they do so by setting up separate entities that ensure licensing, fair policies and proper fiscal management -- the safeguards Bush describes as "bureaucratic barriers."

In addition, under federal law, religious organizations are allowed to discriminate based on religion, which has been interpreted by courts to mean not only religious affiliation, but behavior which conflicts with the religious tenets of the employer. These exemptions for religious organizations have left the door wide open for employment discrimination and refusal of services for GLBT people.

Other faith-based groups have also expressed concerns about this program, including the National Council of Churches, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas. Chief among these concerns is the lack of safeguards to prevent discrimination, basic licensing requirements, and misuse of funds. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released a report last month on how government-funded religion may pose threats to GLBT communities, clients, and social workers. According to NGLTF, aspects of the President‚s faith-based funding plan are likely to be debated first in the Senate, with legislation tentatively scheduled for consideration in April.

Established in 1998, the National Religious Leadership Roundtable is a coalition of more than 40 religious organizations supporting the equality of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. Together, Roundtable members represent millions of people of faith in the United States. Leaders in the following traditions are represented in the NRLR: Muslim, Hindu, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Mormon, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Pagan, and the Black Church, as well as other religious and spiritual groups. The Religious Roundtable is co-convened by Equal Partners in Faith and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

For more information and web links about the White House Office for Faith-Based Initiatives go to NGLTF's "W. Watch" website at: http://www.ngltf.org/federal/wwfaith.htm

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