Orthodox groups welcomed an executive order by President Donald Trump establishing the “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative” and re-committing the administration’s efforts to protect religious liberty in America. The office is charged with acting as a coordinator between religious organizations and the various federal agencies from which they could potentially receive funding.
Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs and Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, said that the order’s practical and symbolic value are both helpful for religious groups.
“In signing today’s Executive Order establishing the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, President Trump affirms his Administration’s commitment to religious liberty and to the important role religious communities play in our society,” he said. “Having an office within the White House that directs and coordinates the activities that are so ably conducted by the existing faith-based centers in the different agencies will make their work even more effective. And we are particularly pleased that the executive order directs all federal agencies to appoint liaisons that will be devoted to faith and opportunity initiatives.”
The concept is not entirely new, as it is a commitment to continue the White House faith-based initiative that was started under President George W. Bush and continued by President Barak Obama. Yet the initiative sets renewed guidelines, such as providing recommendations on the Administration’s policy agenda affecting faith-based and community programs, and a special emphasis on programs that seek to address poverty. It also authorizes the office to apprise the Administration of any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law and to work to reduce the burdens on the exercise of free religion.
“As a minority faith community in America, the Orthodox Jewish community depends upon robust legal protections for religious exercise,” Orthodox Union executive director for public policy Nathan Diament said. “It is also important — as a matter of constitutional law and basic fairness — that we ensure that faith-based organizations are able to be full partners with the government in its many programs … This bipartisan continuity is an important statement of principle and rebuttal to those who would seek to have government policy discriminate against faith-based entities.”
The office had remained largely unstaffed since the beginning of the Administration, and several religious groups were cheered by the president’s recommitment to the program.
One aspect of the order that drew criticism from several left-leaning Jewish groups was a clause that lifts a requirement for religious organizations that receive federal funds to offer referrals to other non-religious providers of similar services. The clause was intended to prevent organizations from using the social services they offer as a license to proselytize.
Rabbi Cohen said that he was concerned about the possibility of organizations taking advantage of the change, but doubted that it would lead to any practical problems.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where participants in a program have to do anything against their beliefs, but I do not think that the First Amendment or the courts would tolerate, and I can’t see, a faith-based provider trying to do it,” he said.
Over the years that the faith-based initiative has been in existence, Rabbi Cohen said that it has been helpful in resolving conflicts between organizations and federal departments, particularly citing nutrition programs for schools, and he was hopeful that the new order would help to protect religious liberty concerns.
“Perhaps, above all, we are gratified that the executive order is not simply a matter of providing ‘equal access’ to religious groups to participate in federal programs,” he said. “The president’s directive provides that the goals of the initiative include apprising the Administration of any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law and to take steps to reduce the burdens on the free exercise of religion.”