Late last week, the Brookings Institute convened a day-long conference marking the tenth anniversary of the faith-based initiative. Josh DuBois, current head of the new White House Faith and Neighborhood Council, kicked off the conference by discussing the latest White House efforts and arguing that these would mark a new kind of faith-based initiative. However, while he stressed the differences between the Bush and Obama White House efforts, there has been little actual evidence of these differences. First, Obama has yet to make good on his promise to eliminate hiring discrimination by religious groups when receiving federal funds. Second, the efforts of the new White House Office have not been transparent or obvious. Numerous people have argued that DuBois is nearly impossible to get in touch with, and that, since there was no website until eleven months after the initiative began, it is very difficult to track what has happened and what has not happened to-date. Additionally, and as with the Bush initiative, while the White House Office is rich in rhetoric, there has been no significant funding or commitment of funding to help faith and community groups provide social services.  Finally, the 30-member Faith and Neighborhood Council, while made up of a variety of denominations, is still dominated by conservative religious leaders and has not been given say in key issues, including hiring. It is still uncertain whether the administration will take up any of their recommendations. All of this has made numerous people skeptical that Obama’s effort isn’t just as political as Bush’s faith-based initiative was.

The first panel, of which I was part, discussed the social science research on the initiative and came to the general conclusion that the faith-based sector had always been an important part of the social service sector, and did not see any significant changes occurring in the latter because of the initiative.  In my book, which I presented on at the panel, I argue that this is at least partially because the initiative under Bush (and so far under Obama) has been more about using symbolic faith-based policies, like faith-based offices and conferences, to court religious voters than about supporting these groups to help the poor and needy through funding increases. However, there was a consensus that both faith-based and secular organizations provide excellent social services, and that neither faith-based nor secular is universally better.

The second panel examined church and state legal issues, disagreeing on a majority of key points, including the faith-based hiring provision that allows religious groups to discriminate in hiring, even when receiving public funds—a decision by the Office of Legal Counsel that was denounced by Bob Tuttle of the George Washington University School of Law as being even worse than the OLC memo on torture.  Also controversial was the Hein vs. Freedom From Religion Foundation decision, which, according to Dan March of the ACLU, essentially gutted the rights of tax payers to sue on First Amendment grounds and could lead to direct funding of religious groups going unchecked. Others argued that these and other provisions were benefits to faith-based groups and should be kept in place.

In the final panel, Rabbi David Saperstein discussed the role of the faith and neighborhood advisory council. Saperstein argued that the council had made significant progress addressing tough issues, including recommending that all religious groups that receive government funds get their own separate 501c3 (or nonprofit incorporation status). But he felt that there were many things that could be improved upon, including allowing recommendations to be made as they come out, rather than waiting for a whole year while organizations still operate under the old Bush White House rules. They have yet to make their recommendations public, and the most controversial issue, regarding whether or not faith-based groups can hire only co-coreligionists (even when they receive federal funds), was taken out of their hands.