Friday, February 06, 2009

The new White House Office on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships: Who's Missing at the Table?

I was deep into sermon preparation most of yesterday so I missed the announcement of the new White House Office on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, including the first 15 members of the advisory committee.

The Office has four priorities, according to the press release, including:

It will be one voice among several in the administration that will look at how we support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the need for abortion.

Note that the wording is NOT “abortion reduction” as being reported in the press, but reducing the need for abortion, surely a goal as I have written many times that is common ground. Although I’m not sure why there isn’t a commitment to reduce pregnancies among teenagers rather than it being a topic to be “addressed”, the statement does support the agenda laid out on the White House web site for the new administration:

Supports a Woman's Right to Choose: President Obama understands that abortion is a divisive issue, and respects those who disagree with him. However, he has been a consistent champion of reproductive choice and will make preserving women's rights under Roe v. Wade a priority in his Administration. He opposes any constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's decision in that case.

Preventing Unintended Pregnancy: President Obama was an original co-sponsor of legislation to expand access to contraception, health information, and preventive services to help reduce unintended pregnancies. Introduced in January 2007, the Prevention First Act will increase funding for family planning and comprehensive sex education that teaches both abstinence and safe sex methods. The Act will also end insurance discrimination against contraception, improve awareness about emergency contraception, and provide compassionate assistance to rape victims.

What’s curious then is that among the fifteen leaders who have been named to the new Advisory Council, only Rabbi David Saperstein from the Union for Reform Judaism is an outspoken supporter of women's reproductive choice, although several of the named persons are vocal anti-choice supporters. Given the President's public commitments and the published White House agenda I note above, the lack of denomination and religious organization leaders who are known to be supporters of these issues and who have expertise working on them is troubling and disappointing. It’s also deeply troubling that only one of the council members is a woman religious leader, that only one third are women, and that none are out gay and lesbian religious or secular leaders.

The last is particularly concerning because the President in establishing the office left in place a Bush executive order that s specifically authorizes religion-based employment discrimination in publicly funded programs, what seems like a reversal of candidate Obama’s strong statement in July: “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.”

The good news is that there are still ten openings on the Advisory Committee. On Wednesday, we sent Rev. Joshua DuBois, the new head of the office, a congratulatory letter introducing the work of the Religious Institute and our network of more than 4400 religious leaders committed to sexual justice. I’ll be calling him for a meeting next week. We will be sending the White House a letter with the names of religious leaders who are committed to sexual justice and knowledgeable about reducing teenage pregnancy and unintended pregnancy prevention for their consideration.

I am mindful of the President's call to reach out an open hand, rather than a clenched fist. Although we agree with our colleagues at Americans United and The Interfaith Alliance that we might have preferred to see an end to this program, we are prepared to work with it and the Council to be sure that a progressive religious voice is represented and that its recommendations are consistent with the President's commitments.

Leave a comment and tell us who you would like to see us suggest for consideration for the remaining 10 slots.

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