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Biden reestablishes White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

The office has existed in various forms for the past 20 years

In this Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021 file photo, President Joe Biden, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, places his hand over his heart during a performance of the national anthem, during a virtual Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service in the State Dinning Room of the White House, in Washington.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Sunday outlining his administration’s plans to combat racism, poverty, polarization, climate change and other crises with the help of people of faith.

The order reestablishes the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an initiative that, for the past 20 years, has promoted and guided church-state partnerships across the federal government.

Such partnerships will play an essential role in pulling the country through its current struggles, Biden said in a statement.

“There are not Democrats or Republicans dying from this pandemic, or losing their jobs, going hungry and facing eviction in this economic crisis, or facing the sting of systemic racism or the brunt of the climate crisis,” he said. “They are fellow human beings. They are fellow Americans. And this is not a nation that can, or will, simply stand by and watch the suffering around us. That is not who we are. That is not what faith calls us to be. That is why I’m reestablishing the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to work with leaders of different faiths and backgrounds who are the frontlines of their communities in crisis and who can help us heal, unite, and rebuild.”

Melissa Rogers, who led the office under President Barack Obama, will reprise her role in the Biden administration. She will be assisted by Deputy Director Josh Dickson, who was the Biden campaign’s national faith engagement director, and Trey Baker, who will serve as the office’s liaison to Black communities, including Black churches.

The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, then called the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, was launched by President George W. Bush in January 2001.

Its mission was to help religious organizations take advantage of new opportunities to partner with the government, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who worked with the office under both Bush and Obama.

“If you want to level the playing field (in federal funding programs), you have to ask yourself how to help a faith group that for 50 years or however long has thought they had no place at the table. The faith-based initiative made sure all the rules were applied fairly” and helped religious organizations understand them, he said.

Obama kept Bush’s office going, but also convened a diverse advisory council to weigh in on how to improve its work. After considering the council’s input, he updated the rules governing church-state partnerships to expand protections for beneficiaries.

Faith-based organizations that received federal funds were required to notify a potential client about his religious freedom rights and to provide referrals to other organizations upon request, Carlson-Thies said.

Like Obama, President Donald Trump made some adjustments to the office. He scaled back the beneficiary protections in order to ensure that faith-based service providers were not forced to carry a heavier burden than secular ones.

Carlson-Thies and other religious freedom experts expect Biden to propose his own round of updates to funding rules. For example, he’ll have to decide whether faith groups that accept government money will be required to abide by federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws.

“There are all these questions unsettled at the federal level about how to protect LGBTQ rights and religious organizations” at the same time, Carlson-Thies said.

Biden’s statement on the value of church-state partnerships did not dive into the surrounding policy debates. Instead, he focused on his passion for the work to be done.

“We still have many difficult nights to endure. But we will get through them together and with faith guiding us through the darkness and into the light,” he said.