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Zanesville, Ohio--Faith-based social services have a mixed record when it comes to meeting the needs of LGBT adults and youth.
Groups that serve people with HIV and AIDS are pleased that government money and services can flow through faith-based organizations, in addition to more traditional routes.
But people concerned with civil rights have a different view. Most notably, they see that faith-based service providers have discriminated by sexual orientation and gender identity, both in service and employment. This has increased under the Bush administration.
On July 1 in Zanesville, likely Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama announced his intent to expand faith-based services. Most observers see the proposal as a political maneuver to gain support from religious conservatives.
Obama said the Bush administration “never fulfilled its promise” to deliver more services through churches because “social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently under-funded.”
“I’ll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships,” Obama said.
“The new name will reflect a new commitment. This council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart--it will be a critical part of my administration.”
Obama also wants to use federal funds to train group leaders to be better grant writers so they can get more money.
“Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea--so long as we follow a few basic principles,” Obama said.
“First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them, or against the people you hire, on the basis of their religion,” Obama declared.
That has always been the law with faith-based groups that get federal money to provide services, and it has not always worked. The programs are also forbidden to discriminate in services--and employment--under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Federal law doesn’t include gays
But the 1964 law doesn’t include discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity. It covers race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Without being included in the law, federal courts have regularly tossed out LGBT discrimination complaints, no matter how serious. Faith-based groups can get federal money while keeping LGBT people out of their programs, and refuse to hire them.
Federal money has also been taken away from gay and lesbian groups to be given to churches, especially under Bush administration rules.
Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services of Los Angeles ran a federally-funded program to give computer and job training to incarcerated youth. After three years of meeting their goals, the money was abruptly redirected to a church with no mandate to serve or hire LGBT people. GLASS is now struggling to keep up its other services and may be forced to close its group homes.
The Obama campaign put out a fact sheet on their proposal which says recipients of federal money “Must comply with federal anti discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” and “Religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs.”
The campaign also said in a written statement that Obama “appreciates that the LGBT community has concerns about ensuring access to critical social services.”
However, the campaign stops short of saying how that would happen under the present law. When pressed, they answer that “Senator Obama has been working to pass a fully-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, so that employment discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation or gender identity is not permitted. He will continue to fight for ENDA’s passage as president.”
By press time--14 days after their announcement--the campaign has not answered questions about what happens if ENDA doesn’t pass, or it doesn’t pass for years into his presidency, or it passes without including protection for gender identity and expression.
Will comply with state, local LGBT laws
The day of Obama’s Zanesville appearance, at the campaign’s request, the Gay People’s Chronicle submitted 11 written questions on how the proposed program would affect LGBT Americans.
The campaign answered them with a “summary of our position.”
“Let’s be clear,” the summary says. “Obama’s position on religious hiring rights is a return to the state of the law before the Bush administration took office and muddied the waters with various executive orders. There are of course difficult questions that will have to be worked out, but his position on the basic principle is clear.”
The summary, however, makes Obama’s position more unclear.
It says that “federal funding recipients--including faith-based organizations--should have to comply with existing federal, state and local laws, including laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
“To the extent that existing federal, state and local laws prohibit such discrimination in particular government-funded programs, the President Councils will help faith-based organizations comply with those laws,” it says.
In response to requests for additional clarification--especially to recognize that present federal law doesn’t protect LGBT people at all--the campaign restated its previous positions.
“[Obama’s] new President’s Council will be open to all perspectives and voices on these issues (including the LGBT community’s) and will be specifically tasked with empowering grassroots community and faith-based groups that follow these principles and provide critical services to those in need,” the campaign wrote.
Dave Noble, Obama’s director of the LGBT vote, answered one of the Chronicle’s July 1 questions in a response to the LGBT blog Pam’s House Blend.
Blogger Pam Spaulding reported July 11 that Noble confirmed to her that “under no circumstances will funds from the program will be granted to FBOs for proselytizing or reparative therapy.”
“Reparative therapy” means attempts to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexual, a discredited practice promoted by some religious groups.
The campaign also suggested that faith-based programs could deal with homeless youth.
According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, roughly 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Twenty-six percent of these young people say they were thrown out of their homes after coming out and they see belittlement, ridicule and abuse at shelters, often run by faith-based organizations.
Two of the Chronicle’s questions dealt specifically with LGBT cultural competency of the faith-based programs getting federal money.
The campaign has offered no summary or position in return.