On May 3, President Donald J. Trump marked the National Day of Prayer by signing an executive order creating the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. At the signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Trump referred to this initiative as “another historic action to promote religious freedom.”
The executive order revoked previous presidential faith-based initiatives, namely President George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and President Barack Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
An Advisor to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, based in the Office of Public Liaison, will lead Trump's new initiative. The office will serve as a conduit for faith-based organizations to "provide recommendations regarding aspects of my Administration’s policy agenda that affect faith-based and community programs and initiatives," according to the executive order.
Additionally, the executive order instructed executive departments and agencies that currently lack a faith and opportunity initiative to designate a Liaison for the Faith and Opportunity Initiative to serve as the point of contact for the advisor. The White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative is also responsible for notifying the Attorney General of "concerns raised by faith-based and community organizations about any failures of the executive branch to comply with protections of Federal law for religious liberty," the order said.
Synagogues, churches, and other faith-based institutions offer many social service programs to their communities, including pastoral counseling, emergency loan funds, and youth programming. They operate with support from private donors as well as volunteers. This initiative will “help ensure that faith-based organizations have equal access to government funding and the equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs,” Trump said.
The response from Jewish organizations was mixed.
“By retaining and reorganizing this office within the White House, the president is providing continuity and building on the important work of previous administrations in helping to ensure equity for and nondiscrimination against religious entities that are devoted to addressing America’s most pressing needs,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for Federal Affairs and Washington director for Agudath Israel of America.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told the Washington Post that he has “grave concerns” about President Trump’s directive and its ability to let faith groups play a key role in government programs while also protecting “the rights of all people, regardless of their faith. We have already seen efforts by this administration to undermine essential rules … thereby threatening religious liberty.”
The Orthodox Union’s public policy office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The executive order struck section 2 (h) from Executive Order 13279, which required religious organizations receiving federal funding to provide referrals to alternate non-religious providers upon request. This move drew the attention of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad).
“Any time somebody doesn’t feel comfortable religiously in the context of humanitarian assistance it’s a cause for concern and review, and I definitely intend to be in touch with the administration as appropriate to learn what implications this might have,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).
On the evangelical side, the Rev. Johnnie Moore, spokesman for President Trump’s evangelical advisory group, said the initiative “represents a widespread expansion of a program that has historically done very effective work and now can do even greater work.”
“Once again, President Trump delivered on his promises to the faith community with the formation of a White House office to organize the federal government to work alongside faith-based organizations,” said Faith & Freedom Coalition Executive Director Tim Head.
In a statement issued on May 4, the Religion News Service pointed out the history of White House-sponsored faith-based initiatives and some of the perceived controversies that came from them. “Since its inception in 2001, the White House faith office has grappled with difficult religious-liberty questions. Under Bush, a key debate concerned whether groups receiving federal funding could discriminate in hiring. Under Obama, the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate created high-stakes legal battles ... in developing accommodations for employers with religious objections to artificial contraception.”
“Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental and cherished rights,” said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm other people, to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate.”
On paper the directive is “just setting up an office to coordinate faith-based cooperation,” according to Howie Slugh, a constitutional lawyer and member of Kesher Israel Congregation in DC.
“Congress is prohibited from effecting an ‘establishment’ of religion. Setting up an office to communicate with religious organizations as they help fulfill important civic functions is by no means an establishment of religion,” he said.
President Obama’s former-Executive Director of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Melissa Rogers, expressed concern about how the Trump Administration may not protect the religious freedom for all Americans — especially Muslim Americans — in the same Washington Post story in which Rabbi Pesner was quoted.
Malka Goldberg contributed to this article.
By Jason Langsner
Jason Langsner is a blogger and an active lay leader of the Washington Jewish community.