President Obama spent a good bit of
the day on February 5 working the religious crowd. He spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast
where he talked about his family’s religious history, a Muslim father
who became an atheist, grandparents who were non practicing Christians
and a mother who was skeptical about organized religion. After watching
it all, I’m with Obama’s mama.
After leaving the breakfast, the President
unveiled his plans for the new White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
and signed an executive order authorizing it and naming the first 15
of the eventual 25 Council members who will advise him.
There was little change in the Council’s core
mission – helping faith groups get government funding for social services,
education and humanitarian efforts. So little change, in fact, that the
one thing the President promised he would change while campaigning was
ignored. Obama did not insist that religious groups who get federal
funds cannot discriminate in hiring or serving people and they cannot
proselytize in the program that receives funding. More alarming was
the planned incursion of the Faith Based Office into reproductive health and
rights. Suddenly, one of the four top priorities for the Office is to
examine "ways to support women and children, address teen pregnancy
and reduce the need for abortion."
Well, who better to do this than a
bunch of mostly male, mostly 60-and-over clergy (the notable exception is
the director of the Office, a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister named
Jason duBois). The only person on the Council who might have the
slightest knowledge about these issues is the president of Big Brothers
and Big Sisters, Judith Vredenburgh. Of the nine religious representatives
on the Council, most are anti-abortion, from Jim Wallis and Joel Hunter
to the emeritus president of the Southern Baptist Convention and of
course, Father Larry Snyder, head of Catholic Charities. The rest have
no public record on reproductive health issues, with the single exception
of Rabbi David Saperstein, who is pro-choice.
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The very wording of the mandate makes
clear the conservative bias of the Office. What exactly does it mean
to "address teen pregnancy?" This critical problem gets even shorter
shrift than abortion. At least for abotion, the goal is clear: reduce the need for abortion. Where teen pregnancy is concerned we
have no idea if addressing teen pregnancy means more abstinence-only programming or high schools in which teens who carry pregnancies to term
get day care. We can’t even say we want to prevent teen pregnancy, which might
mean we need to promote contraception and comprehensive sexuality education.
This is one of those issues the women’s
movement and the reproductive health movement cannot ignore. First,
there are 10 seats left on this committee and we need to insist that
those seats be held by religious and secular (there are presently five
members of the Council from secular organizations) leaders who are both
anti-poverty and pro-choice. Obama cannot make up the face of religion
to exclude the majority of people and leaders of faith. Some quick names:
Reverend Carleton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Maureen Shea,
Director of Government Relations for the Episcopal Church and liaison
to the religious community during the Clinton administration; Deborah
Haffner of the Religious Institute, an ordained minister and sexologist;
Tom Davis, former chaplain at Skidmore College and an early leader in
the Planned Parenthood Clergy Network. And while we’re at it how about
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and former director
of the Interfaith Network of Texas. Planned Parenthood knows something
about reducing the need for abortion and addresses teen pregnancy every
day. And Cecile knows the importance of protecting the separation of
church and state. Oh and if we were interested in a balance to Catholic
Charities, how about Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World
Services, which provides humanitarian and health assistance to women worldwide or Carol Bellamy, former executive of UNICEF who also has
dealt with supporting women and children worldwide.
After we get those names to the President
we need to let the President know that it is the women’s movement
and the reproductive health movement that he needs to look to on our
issues. When we are ignored on these issues the president is not on
common ground, he is on shaky ground and is bound to stumble.