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JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

The White House has acted quickly and aggressively on a couple major matters intended to restitch the social safety net. With respect to one, we’re confident that President Obama has made the right move; on the other, we’re not so sure…yet.

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Many American Jewish groups applauded when President Barack Obama signed into law the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which seeks to stimulate the dangerously stalled American economy. Some of these same groups can take credit for key safety net provisions of the Act that benefit the Jewish community.

The stimulus bill will provide $1 billion to Jewish nursing homes and social service agencies, according to the United Jewish Communities. Those funds would come from the $87 billion that the legislation allots for state Medicaid programs as a result of an increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP. This inclusion was a top priority for the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and other Jewish groups that actively lobbied for passage of the legislation.

Louis Albert, Executive Director of the local Jewish Family and Children’s Service, said he welcomed the potential new funding. JF &CS has been especially hard hit by the economic downturn, with increased demands on the Jewish Food Pantry and additional basic life services required for members of the Jewish community. “We are seeing an increase in the demand for help across the entire spectrum of our agency programs and services,” Albert told the Jewish Light. “There is a ripple effecct as the economic downturn goes deeper and deeper in its impact on the Jewish community.”

We applaud the President, Congress and the Jewish agencies that pushed for inclusion in the bill of urgently needed funds for Jewish and general social service agencies. But just a week earlier, the President signed an executive order with respect to faith-based funding that raises constitutional issues we thought (and wish) were put to bed during the presidential campaign.

On February 5, President Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The executive order ducked one of the thornier issues associated with public funding of social service programs performed by religiously-based agencies — whether employers who accept such money can engage in religious discrimination in their hiring practices.

The noble concept of the Presidential initiative, building on previous efforts of the Bush Administration, is to help social service agencies provide essential needs. And some of the stated goals of the office — addressing teen pregnancy, encourage responsible fatherhood and working with the National Security Council to foster interfaith dialogue around the world — seem sound on their face. But the underlying constitutional issues present a sticky wicket, to say the least. Some groups, such as the Orthodox Union, have expressed the view that being able to use religious beliefs as a basis in hiring practices is essential in maintaining the character of an organization. Others say that, even if you accept the view that religious groups should receive public funding — and some don’t, saying it erodes the wall between church and state — once a group takes public money, it must be bound by nondiscriminatory hiring principles.

“We are deeply troubled by the prospect that taxpayer money will likely fund religious discrimination in employment decisions involving the people who deliver faith-based social services,” said Glen Lewy, national chair, and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. In their letter to President Obama, The ADL leaders reminded him of his campaign statements that the Bush faith-based program didn’t have adequate safeguards relating to both proselytizing and discrimination.

We agree with the ADL, and hope that the Obama Administration acts soon to clarify the employment rules associated with the initiative. Not only is this an important church-state issue, but we are concerned with the administration imposing rules by executive order that stretch constitutional boundaries. Only some five weeks ago did we see the end of an eight-year presidential era in which the White House sought the aggressive expansion of executive authority. The Constitution should be party-blind; if those excesses were wrong then, they are wrong now. The Obama Administration must adopt rules to make clear it is not acting of its own accord to blur church-state lines. To do otherwise results in a slippery slope we care not to descend…again.