Yesterday, President Biden announced via executive order that he would be reestablishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — a continuation of a George W. Bush-era department meant to connect the government with faith-based groups and help them provide (ostensibly secular) social services with taxpayer money.
The office itself isn’t necessarily a problem. A lot of Americans are primarily motivated by faith, they’re connected to their communities through a church, and it’s important to have connections with groups representing them — as long as the office isn’t promoting a particular religion, makes sure to include members of minority faiths, and recognizes that people without any faith also share many of the same concerns and therefore shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.
Under President Obama, that’s generally what happened. In 2013, in his second term, he appointed Melissa Rogers, the former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (the good Baptists!), to run the place and she generally got rave reviews from our side of the aisle. Rogers respected the Establishment Clause — so much so that her appointment was met with gushing praise from the leaders of several church/state separation groups, including Americans United, the ACLU, Interfaith Alliance, the American Humanist Association, and the Center For Inquiry.
During Rogers’ time there, the office met with the Secular Coalition for America, invited atheists to a discussion about “interfaith and community service programming on campus,” and pushed for a policy preventing groups receiving grants from preaching while using taxpayer funds.
So while the office itself was the center of a lot of criticism from the atheist community, Rogers was certainly more inclusive of us than anyone before her and the office did what it could to prevent religious proselytization at taxpayers’ expense.
Under Donald Trump, it was a different story. His administration mostly ignored the office. Instead, he started a “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative” that was more of a club for conservative Christians. (Let’s be honest: That was his entire administration, really.) That initiative was run by scamvangelist Paula White, who functioned as an all-in-one Trump hack, liaison for the prosperity gospel crowd, and meme-generator for critics. Melissa Rogers even argued that the nation was better off with Trump ignoring the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships because it was clear Trump would have used it to advance a conservative Christian agenda.
So is it good or bad that Biden is bringing the office back?
Considering that the office isn’t disappearing anytime soon — and Democrats have a lot to gain strategically by reaching out to religious communities — I’m extremely optimistic about its future.
That’s largely because Biden plans to bring back Melissa Rogers, the church/state separation advocate, to steer the ship. At her side will be Josh Dickson, who led faith outreach efforts during Biden’s campaign.
Biden is expected to appoint Melissa Rogers, a First Amendment lawyer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution to oversee the office, as Rogers did in former President Barack Obama’s second term. Rogers will also serve as senior director for faith and public policy in the White House Domestic Policy Council.
The office’s deputy director will be Josh Dickson, who ran faith outreach for the Biden-Harris campaign. Trey Baker, who worked as the National Director of African American Engagement on Biden’s campaign, will serve as the White House office’s liaison to Black communities, a role that includes Black religious groups.
Dickson, by the way, was also the person who helped us launch “Humanists for Biden” last fall. While a number of atheist activists did all the work, Dickson was present at planning meetings and was our point of contact with the Biden campaign.
The agenda for the Office also addresses a major concern of atheists:
Besides fighting the pandemic and racism and assisting with economic recovery, the office will focus its efforts on helping disadvantaged communities, advancing global humanitarian work, strengthening pluralism and protecting “cherished guarantees of church-state separation and freedom for people of all faiths and none.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group which would presumably condemn the Office if it didn’t adhere to Establishment Clause principles, celebrated the appointment of Rogers:
“We applaud President Biden for choosing Melissa Rogers to, once again, run the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and to serve in a new role, Senior Advisor on Faith and Public Policy. Rogers’ mastery of church-state law and policy and her track record of finding shared values make her exceedingly qualified for both positions. When she served in the Obama administration, Rogers successfully worked with people across faiths and the nonreligious to adopt policies that protect the religious freedom of people who use federally funded social services.
“This new team has much work to do. The Trump administration spent four years adopting policies that misused religious freedom to sanction discrimination, deny access to health care and require taxpayers to fund religion. We have confidence that the Biden administration will work hard to right these wrongs and reclaim religious freedom as a shield to protect rather than a sword to harm others. We must ensure that our laws do not allow people to use their religious beliefs to harm others.
“Americans United looks forward to working with the administration to restore church-state protections that safeguard everyone’s religious freedom. Government partnerships with faith-based organizations must be evidence-based, inclusive and equally welcoming for people of all faiths and the nonreligious. They must prohibit taxpayer-funded employment discrimination. And social service providers accepting government funds must not be allowed to discriminate against people in their programs or force them to participate in religious activities in order to receive vital services.”
AU president and CEO Rachel Laser added:
It’s really important to know that @melissarogers has an established track record of working with people of different faiths and the nonreligious and deep experience finding shared values. This couldn’t be more different from Trump’s choice of Paula White.
— Rachel Laser (@rachelklaser) February 14, 2021
Secular activist and Democratic National Committee Interfaith Council Co-Chair Sarah Levin also praised the move:
Congratulations @MelissaRogers! Your genuine engagement with the #secular community gives me hope that this administration will value and meaningfully include our community. Your deep expertise and vision for transformative change is exactly what our country needs in this moment. https://t.co/AioTzjQ0ji
— Sarah M. Levin (@SarahMLevin) February 14, 2021
It’s not all praise, though. Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, expressed concern about the bigger underlying issue of the Office’s existence, though even he praised the selection of Rogers.
“While I commend the Biden Administration for reinforcing its commitment to religious pluralism and guarantees for church-state separation in this executive order, I am deeply concerned that the continued reliance on faith-based service providers has created a system where the American people are forced to endure coercive religious practices in order to access basic social services.
“Religious service providers have repeatedly sought — and been given — exemptions from civil rights protections that allow them to discriminate against atheists and other nonreligious Americans, LGBTQ people, and people seeking access to reproductive healthcare services. While we’re still awaiting a decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that could further undermine the common sense requirement that taxpayer-funded groups must serve all taxpayers, now is not the time for this administration to increase reliance on these religious service providers.
“Job number one needs to be strengthening and rebuilding protections for people seeking services from religious groups. No person should be turned away from a homeless shelter because they don’t want to take part in prayer services. No prospective parents should face discrimination because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious beliefs. And no one should not know that they’re entitled to a secular alternative to religious providers.
“I remain skeptical that it will be possible to fully protect the right of all Americans to be free from discrimination and coercive religious practices when accessing basic services given the current legal landscape, but the President’s choices to lead this office are heartening. Melissa Rogers, Josh Dickson, and Trey Baker have demonstrated that they are thoughtful leaders who will engage with people of diverse religious traditions, including the more than one-quarter of Americans who are nonreligious. I hope they continue to do so in their roles in the White House.
“President Biden has repeatedly said he will be president for all Americans. His administration can demonstrate that commitment by ensuring that Americans of all faiths, and none, have a seat at the table. Failure to engage with the tens of millions of nonreligious Americans who overwhelmingly supported his candidacy would be a profound mistake.”
Fish is right to be concerned that social services provided by faith-based groups with taxpayer money could involve discriminatory practices. He’s also making a great point that a better country wouldn’t have to rely on religious groups to do things our nation ought to be providing already. Unfortunately, when your country is as broken as the United States, you gotta take the help wherever you can get it. With some limitations.
Rogers has been opposed to the things that worry Nick and my hope is that her team will continue pushing back against any religious groups that want to practice bigotry with government assistance.
There will undoubtedly be criticism of the Biden administration for maintaining an office that arguably shouldn’t have to exist in the first place, but as long as it’s around, it ought to be run properly. Now it will be. The biggest watchdog’s of government intrusion on the Establishment Clause aren’t worried of this Office becoming a government tool to promote Christianity. You shouldn’t worry about it either.