Where Does Faith Come in With Biden’s Valentine’s Day Order?

COMMENTARY: There’s a glaring void in the president’s re-establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

A woman prays over the American flag.
A woman prays over the American flag. (photo: 4Max / Shutterstock)

On Sunday, Feb. 14, President Biden issued an executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. At first blush, the new administration appears to confirm the important role of religious people and groups in the United States.

Biden’s Valentine’s Day order re-established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an initiative first put in place by President George W. Bush. A White House “Fact Sheet” accompanying the executive order opens by proclaiming that the “Biden-Harris administration commits to promoting partnerships with faith-based and neighborhood organizations to help people in need.”

So far, so good. Take a closer look, however, and what you see is a head fake (in the event that you are not getting ready for March Madness, that’s a basketball term for a maneuver that deceives your opponents about the direction in which you’re heading.)  

The “Partnership Office” will “include collaborating with civil society to: address the COVID-19 pandemic and boost economic recovery; combat systemic racism; increase opportunity and mobility for historically disadvantaged communities; and strengthen pluralism.” If that’s not enough for a small office within the White House, it will “also support agency partnerships that advance the United States Government’s diplomatic, international development, and humanitarian work around the world.” 

While the kitchen sink of social ills both domestically and internationally is listed as part of the work of this office, the term “faith-based” mysteriously disappears in its short form title. Is there something more going on here?

“A key commitment of the Partnerships Office is embracing pluralism,” explains the White House Fact Sheet. What will this commitment to pluralism mean for Catholic-run organizations? Will the Partnership Office support long-time foster care placement agencies like the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services by defending its right to find loving homes for children without having to endorse same-sex marriage? Will it safeguard the continued care of the elderly poor by the Little Sisters of the Poor by protecting their right to an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate? Will it be on the side of Catholic Benefits Association members who object to providing insurance coverage for gender transition drugs and surgeries as required by the ACA’s transgender mandate? Will school choice initiatives including religious schools find allies in the Partnership Office? I’m doubtful. 

Adding to that concern is the appointment connected to the renewal of the Partnership Office. President Biden named Melissa Rogers to serve as its executive director. She held the position during the Obama administration. Before her appointment Rogers co-wrote an opinion piece with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., that asserts that religion “is the source of some of our deepest divisions.” She goes on to denounce “the weaponization of faith for political purposes.” So much for a friendly approach to faith. 

In Rogers’ opinion piece, she urged the president to direct the Department of Justice to “promptly review and revise its religious liberty guidance, and it should also review a series of executive actions of recent years that failed to adequately balance the legitimate interests of all stakeholders.” In view of the fact that past religious liberty guidance consisted of such things as the creation of a conscience and religious freedom division to receive healthcare worker complaints of discrimination at the Department of Health and Human Services and guidance on grant policies to improve public awareness and clarity about the Department of Labor’s protections for religious liberty interests in grant administration, that sounds ominous. 

Biden’s executive order follows Rogers’ suggestion by looping in the attorney general to review “existing or prospective programs and practices” that the Partnership Office Executive Director flags. Let’s hope an Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta (if she is confirmed to that position) isn’t offering opinions. She has reacted with exceptional hostility to recent religious freedom Supreme Court victories. 

After the Little Sisters of the Poor scored another victory before the Supreme Court this past summer, Gupta protested. “This troubling decision allows employers and universities to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage based on religious or moral opposition,” she argued. What other important religious freedom protections will Gupta find “troubling” if asked?

Other progressive ideologues in the administration consider the United States’ first civil right to be an annoyance. Will Rogers or anyone else at the Partnership Office stand up to Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to become secretary of Health and Human Services, if he dismantles the department’s office of religious freedom and conscience rights? Will anyone try to restrain Vice President Kamala Harris from firing bullying questions at orthodox Catholics and their membership in the Knights of Columbus, as she did as a senator? 

President Biden, announcing the re-establishment of the office, used the following words: “When Methodists and Muslims, Buddhists and Baptists, Sikhs and Secular Humanists serve together, we strengthen one another and we strengthen America.” Has the president just redefined secular humanism as a religion, or is he just affirming that the office will not concern itself with religious freedom?  

And what view would the reconstituted office take of religious expression? How would it treat an effort like that of the American Humanist Association to demolish the Bladensburg Peace Cross, a World War I memorial shaped after a Latin Cross? The cross stands today on government-owned land, though initially built in 1925 with private funds on private land. This secular humanist group went to federal court seeking “removal or demolition of the Cross, or removal of the arms from the Cross to form a non-religious slab or obelisk.” Let me repeat that again. These champions of the common good wanted to saw off the arms of a cross honoring the fallen of the Great War. 

The Supreme Court in 2019 rejected the challenge, ruling that since the Peace Cross had stood for decades without controversy, it did not violate the Establishment Clause and could remain standing. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court’s majority, explained that “The Religion Clauses of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.” Rogers should be asked whether she agrees.  

Biden’s Partnership Office is sure to promote and partner with secular philanthropic groups across the country and around the world. Faith-based groups not on a progressive bandwagon, however, are likely to have a much harder time continuing to serve those in need. Instead they will be pushed to the peripheries — or, worse yet, out of business. 

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the director of the Conscience Project.