Are you ready for some faith-based inside baseball?
Back on November 17, 2010, President Obama issued Executive Order 13559, "Fundamental Principles and Policymaking Criteria for Partnerships With Faith-Based and Other Neighborhood Organizations." Long in the making, EO 13559 set out to rectify various regulatory problems with the previous administration's faith-based initiative, as determined by members of the outside Advisory Council to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFANP).
The most important of the rectifications had to do with the fact that, under the Bush regs, people receiving services from government-funded faith-based providers had no recourse if they objected to the religious character of the provider. What EO 13559 does, among other things, is require the organization in question to "refer the beneficiary to an alternative provider" and be responsible for making beneficiaries aware of this right and keep the government agency in question in the loop.
But in order for the Executive Order to be implemented, an interagency working group was established under the joint leadership of OFANP executive director Joshua DuBois and an official from the Office of Management and Budget. It was given 120 days to "submit a report to the President on amendments, changes, or additions that are necessary to ensure that regulations and guidance documents associated with the distribution of Federal financial assistance for social service programs are consistent with the fundamental principles set forth." March 17, 2011 came and went with no report, however, and so did the rest of 2011. Finally, last Friday, at a time (5:39 p.m.) when the federal government releases news it doesn't want reported, the White House published the interagency report.
Why was it 13 months late?
Well, the wheels of federal rulemaking grind slow--especially when, as in this case, 15 separate agencies are involved. Still, as RNS Associate Editor Dan Burke and I discovered when we started poking around a few weeks ago, the report had been ready to go for some time. Its somewhat more timely publication fell victim to the battle over the HHS contraception coverage mandate. "They were dealing with a political fight and they had to do messaging on religion and state and didn't want to muddle their message," said Nathan Diament, public affairs director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and a member of the OFANP Advisory Council that recommended the changes.
Diament emphasized the importance of ensuring that beneficiaries have the right to an alternative service provider if they have religious concerns. "Those are very important because they can impact the lives of individuals in significant ways," he said. "Those rules exist in a couple of programs at HHS, but are not really in place across the board. That’s something we need to see the administration push to the agencies as soon as is practical. "
But according to Advisory Council member Harry Knox, who directs the Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign, not everyone on the Council felt that way. "There were several conservative actors in the room who simply were not helpful in that process," Knox said. "There was real push back from that, but it was clear that the administration was for having that happen."
So there was real reason to fear that the conservative opposition would turn the report into another Obama assault on religion. Which would explain why, even after the contraception commotion has settled down, the White House chose to release the report late on a Friday afternoon.