WASHINGTON — On the campaign trail, Barack Obama criticized President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Candidate Obama last July referred to the office as “another name on the White House organization chart” that failed to help people in desperate need, hinting that if he were elected it would be eliminated.

So it was a surprise that Obama has not only kept the office in place, but has altered its name — the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Obama appointed Pentecostal minister Joshua DuBois to head the office and established an advisory council with a diverse staff of religious leaders and charity administrators, including three Catholics: Anthony Picarello, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA; and Arturo Chavez, president of San Antonio’s Mexican American Catholic College.

At press time, Cybercast News Service reported that Obama also appointed Harry Knox (story, page 2), director of the “religion and faith program” of the homosexual activist organization called the Human Rights Campaign. Just last month, Knox described Pope Benedict XVI and certain Catholic bishops as “discredited leaders” because of their opposition to same-sex “marriage.” He called the Knights of Columbus “foot soldiers of a discredited army of oppression” because of the Knights’ support of Proposition 8 in California last year.

Apart from controversial appointments, one person who has been involved in a faith-based initiative for many years is worried that the new office will be a means to dismantle religious rights by introducing government controls in exchange for funding.

Chuck Colson, former Nixon White House counsel and founder of Prison Fellowship, appeared on Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Fox News show March 1, saying he was worried that Obama would start telling faith-based ministries “that they can’t hire people who share their own convictions and beliefs” and put them out of business.

How well-founded are Colson’s fears?

Dan Gilgoff wrote on Feb. 6 in U.S. News and World Report that no decision had been reached yet whether or not the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives would permit faith-based groups receiving federal funds to hire based on religion. Gilgoff quoted Ira Lupu, a George Washington University Law School professor, who insists that the president is exploring all of his options: “He’s saying, ‘Let’s see what the lawyers tell me.’”

Father Snyder understands such concerns, but doesn’t think such restrictions will ever happen.

“I don’t think telling religious groups who they must hire will be the purview of this office,” said the priest. “The situation of hiring restrictions has happened when the states get involved, but I don’t think the federal government would get involved because we have Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which gives faith-based organizations the right to hire people of their own faith.”

But wouldn’t receiving federal money give the government an inroad to control the decision-making in religious organizations that received such funds?

It’s not as simple as that, Father Snyder contends. “My experience is that this office itself really doesn’t do a lot of funding,” he said. “There are actually specific faith-based offices within each of the 12 departments of the administration. For example, Catholic Charities in Chicago was building housing for homeless veterans. They were able to go to the faith-based office at Housing and Urban Development and have them walk with them through the process of procuring funds, and, in the end, it was very successful.”

Lori Windham is an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit organization devoted to defending religious freedom based in Washington, D.C.

Windham says that it’s just too soon to tell what the Obama administration will do with the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. “We haven’t really seen yet what’s going to happen,” she said. “There has been a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts by the ACLU, trying to stop Catholic Charities from receiving funds to help human-trafficking victims because of their stand on abortion. We don’t know what position the new administration is taking on that case yet.”

Conference Call on Abortion

There is also concern about how life issues will be affected by the office’s work. During the campaign, Obama stated that he supported abortion’s legality but hoped to reduce the number of abortions in America.

On April 3, the office coordinated a conference call between players on both sides of the abortion debate. Although the stated goal of the call was to come up with ideas of how to reduce abortions, Obama aides conducting the call included longtime abortion advocates, LifeNews reported. “When you look at the diversity represented on the advisory council, there are folks who are very much in the pro-life camp and those very much in the pro-choice camp,” said Father Snyder. “What he (Obama) is asking this group to do is to see if we have any common ground in trying to reduce the number of abortions. Maybe we can pull more partners in and get more people to provide women with options (other than abortion).”

Bringing the Catholic Position

Father Snyder added that he and Arturo Chavez will bring the Catholic position to the table at advisory board meetings.

“The two of us will be enunciating Catholic teaching and Catholic values when it comes to life. But, also, we will be trying to get people who do not have the same opinion to look at the need to reduce the number of abortions,” he said. “I’ll do that as a priest and as someone who represents social services and has worked to provide very concrete options.”

If abortion reduction means more federal dollars to fund contraception, Father Snyder stands with the U.S. bishops in opposition. “I think they’ve been very clear with the administration about that,” he said.

Deirdre McQuade, the U.S. bishops’ pro-life spokeswoman, is also reluctant to predict how the Obama administration’s take on faith-based activities will affect religious liberty, but his first few weeks have given her cause for concern.

“We know we have our work cut out for us in defending human life and its promotion. We’ve already seen the Mexico City Policy revoked, as well as challenges to conscience rights. It’s making it more challenging for us to work with this administration in a friendly way on matters of mutual concern.”

After Bush

Catholics appreciate that the Bush-era program hasn’t ended.

“I think it’s a real testament to the work of these organizations that a Democratic administration has come in and actually continued the program and expanded it,” said Windham. “It was something that was attacked by the left a lot in the past. It looked like a Bush initiative that would go out with him, and we’re very happy to see it continue.”

Refusing to be discouraged, Father Snyder says that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives is a worthwhile venture that should help Americans to further appreciate their religious liberty, demonstrating the difference people of faith can make.

“Under George Bush, the main asset for us was access to the administration. Take the issue of disaster response after Hurricane Katrina. A lot of government bureaucracy was actually hindering our (Catholic Charities) ability to respond,” he said. “The Faith-Based Office was able to get us into those offices and have them reassess how they approached things. Whenever we had an issue, we could go to the office, and they really helped us out and supported us. In that sense, I think the office has a great deal of value.”

McQuade says it is a chance for the bishops to help the administration when they can — and stand firm when they cannot.

“We’re looking for opportunities to challenge the president and Congress to do the right thing when it comes to protecting the unborn,” she said. “We want to work together for the common good, but we don’t have unrealistic expectations. But we will challenge, encourage and exhort where it is possible.”

Robert Kumpel writes

from Valdosta, Georgia.