As President Joe Biden re-established a key White House faith-based office last week, former political liaisons to religious groups commended the move—but warned that the office might be misused.
On Feb. 14, President Biden announced he was reinstating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Established by President George W. Bush in 2001, the office was meant to strengthen relationships between the federal government and religious leaders in a number of policy areas.
In his announcement, Biden—just the second Catholic president in U.S. history—cited the role that civil society can play in responding to current challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and “systemic racism.”
He signaled that his faith-based office will be working with secular groups too, emphasizing that the office would not “favor religious over secular organizations.”
Melissa Rogers—who led the office during the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017—will once again serve as its executive director under Biden, in addition to serving as senior director for faith and public policy with the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Beginning with President Bush, each administration has had a faith-based liaison at the White House. President Trump in 2018 created a new “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative,” setting up not only an office at the White House but also liaisons at various federal agencies to work with religious groups.
CNA spoke with several former federal liaisons to faith communities, in addition to a religious freedom scholar, who praised Biden for re-establishing the faith-based office but warned that it could be used for the wrong political purposes.
The office was originally meant to serve as a mediator between faith leaders and the administration. Religious leaders could inform the administration of their policy positions and concerns, and the office in turn could make policy recommendations, said Nick Bell, former staffer at the Education Department’s Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives during the Trump administration.
The office is critical for “people of faith to have direct access to senior leaders,” Bell told CNA. “I’m really happy that Biden is not scrapping the office and keeping it there.”
Ideally, the office should be promoting partnerships between the government and religious groups while protecting the religious freedom of those same groups, said Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC).
“America has a long history of the private sector and public sector partnering together to advance the common good,” he told CNA, noting the historic work of faith-based groups in fighting poverty and providing health care and education.
“When they partner with the government they should remain free to be authentically Jewish, authentically Catholic, authentically protestant, authentically Muslim, and so on,” Anderson stated. “And so the office should be at the forefront of advocating for policies that respect and protect the free exercise of religion.”
Jim Towey, who headed the office under President Bush from 2002 to 2006, complimented the choice of Melissa Rogers as its new executive director but emphasized that she needs to have direct access to the president.
“Melissa Rogers is a very capable and bright leader on these issues, but she can only do so much if the entire West Wing apparatus and the president himself is not fully committed to the success of the office,” said Towey, who is also the founder of the group Aging with Dignity.
Bell noted that he is concerned about the extent to which the Biden administration will allow faith-based government partners to retain their religious mission.
For instance, the Obama administration made certain controversial requirements of religious grantees. The administration stopped partnering with the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) on anti-trafficking efforts in 2011, because of the conference’s opposition to abortion and contraception referrals for human trafficking survivors.
Religious adoption agencies partnering with the federal government were also subject to requirements that they match children with same-sex couples, under the Obama administration.
Religious freedom “will be an area to watch” with the faith-based office, Anderson said.
“Rogers is a serious scholar of and advocate for religious liberty” who “wants to work to find common ground compromises,” he said. However, “on some of the issues where religious liberty conflicts with a progressive sexual orthodoxy she tends to side with the sexual orthodoxy,” he noted.
Rogers herself has previously said that the government is free to protect “sexual orientation and gender identity” when those claims conflict with the mission of religious groups partnering with the government. Such “nondiscrimination” requirements should be applied uniformly to both secular and religious groups, she said.
“My view is that when you have taxpayer funds and nondiscrimination rules that apply to the use of those funds, then what you ought generally to do is uniformly apply those rules, not create religious – you know, these yawning religious exemptions from them,” she told NPR in 2019.
Rogers says she helped push the Obama administration to broaden religious exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate, after the initial exemptions were narrowly-tailored. She chaired the Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships beginning in 2009, before she took over the faith-based partnerships office in 2013.
Religious groups, including EWTN and the Little Sisters of the Poor, sued over the revised mandate saying it still required them to be complicit in morally-objectionable contraceptive coverage.
Rogers, in an interview with Commonweal magazine, admitted that the revised mandate “didn’t ultimately satisfy all those who objected, but it was a genuine effort to listen.”
Towey wished that the White House faith-based partnerships office had been more vocal in support of religious objectors to the mandate.
“It sure would have been nice if the faith-based office at the time had left their voices in support of the rights of Catholic organizations, Orthodox Jewish organizations, the Salvation Army, and others who did not embrace their orthodoxy on providing abortifacients in health care plans,” he said.
Instead, the office “was a guilty bystander when the Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic colleges like Ave Maria University were threatened with closure,” he said.
The purpose of the office can vary with each administration. Under the Obama administration, Towey said that the White House tried to solicit faith leaders to promote the Affordable Care Act, a major policy initiative. The office also worked with religious groups to help combat poverty.
During the Trump administration, offices at various federal agencies issued rules clarifying religious freedom protections for faith-based groups partnering with the government. The Education Department also issued guidance on legal prayer in public schools.
At an online meeting of the office on Thursday, Rogers and other leaders emphasized the importance of faith communities in responding to COVID-19 and during the rollout of vaccines.
Towey said he thought the office was “a great disappointment during the Obama years,” being “pretty much on the distant sidelines” of the administration and, when it took action, was “politicized.”
“In this area, I just don’t find much optimism that this office will be anything more than what it was in the Obama administration, which was ineffective and cosmetic,” Towey said.
Scott Lloyd, former senior advisor at the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives from 2018-2019, also warned against any politicization of the office.
“The danger with any such effort is that the government ends up using religion to promote or legitimize its own agenda,” he said. As the Biden administration “has committed to policies that promote intrinsic evils like abortion,” Lloyd said that was concerning for the future of the faith-based office.
Towey emphasized that Rogers must report directly to President Biden so the office is not marginalized within the administration.
That fact, he said, “will tell you if this office is going to be serious or not.” If Rogers does not report directly to the president, he said, “then that office will just be smothered in the West Wing bureaucracy, and there’ll be three events a year of token significance and nothing more.”