Obama Administration debates requiring covering of religious symbols for federal funds

Catholics need to fight to keep and clarify a Catholic voice in the public square and the digital continent.

A reader alerted me to this entry on the WaPo blog On Faith.  It concerns what the Obama Adminstration might impose on religious institutions which accept federal funds.

I suspect this would impact the school voucher debate.

My emphases and comments.

Obama Faith Council Debates Religious Icons

By William Wan

Obama’s faith council [I wonder who is on that council…] is finalizing its draft report this week, and one of the key debates that emerged from the phone conference yesterday was whether there should be [So this is hypothetical?] rules requiring religious groups to cover up religious symbols if they receive federal funding for services. For example, if a church gets money for a soup kitchen, would it have to remove or put a cloth over all crosses, pictures, etc., every time it gets ready to feed the hungry?  [I know that sounds implausible… but consider how quickly things have been changing.]

That sparked a lively debate among council members that largely dominated yesterday’s two-hour teleconference.  [NB: They didn’t immediately shoot it down.] Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs, who is leading the group tasked with solving such church-state issues laid ouit three possibilities the council could recommend:
1. Making such religious icons not allowed for federally funded services.
2. Allowing it only if no other religious neutral rooms ["religious neutral rooms"] are available and covering up such icons is impratical. [impractical!]
3. Not requiring removal of such icons but encouraging religious orgs to be sensitive about the issue.  ["be sensitive"?  What would that involve?  Walking through the halls sniveling a little?  Hand ringing?]

That led to a lengthy debate from which no clear consensus emerged. [Of coruse everything has to be done by consensus.]  As the council’s various taskforces finish up their reports, some thorny issues like this look like they’ll require footnotes or majority/minority opinion sections (ala supreme court).

The other significant news that emerged from the teleconference yesterday was that Rogers has been chosen by the group to be its official chairwoman and to coordinate the finalizing of the final report as the various taskforces wrap up their work.

Do they set policy or just make recommendations?

Who is on this council?

Remember Georgetown University!  Remember Notre Dame!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Our Catholic Identity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. moon1234 says:

    Remember Georgetown University! Remember Notre Dame!

    Yup. My kids are not going there. The current government is getting more and more facist by the day. Cook the frog slowly.

  2. Peggy R says:

    This is Obama’s running of the “faith-based initiatives” office that W Bush established in the WH. The idea under W was to ensure that religious entities that provide social services obtain funds (nondiscriminarily) b/c they are so good at providing these things over govt. Now, under O, there are many anti-religious and anti-Catholic committee members. The idea is to squelch religious expression in America. Yes, recall Georgetown. Also, note that the WH did NOT want to display a Nativity–Desiree Rogers again. But prior social secretaries were shocked at the idea, so there was one.

    I had heard that this committee had also at one time contemplated requiring religious entities to meet federal nondiscrimination employment law, over religious belief. I think Obie said something about that on the campaign trail.

    Indeed, this is entirely plausible.

    The Church needs to cease accepting government money. STAT.

  3. edwardo3 says:

    Perhaps the time is right for the Church to sever all financial relationships with federal and state agencies and stand on Her own two feet in all things. Yes, we may be faced with the loss of institutions such as Georgetown and Notre Dame, but they are lost to us already so close them down. Being free of such entanglements could only add to the Church’s ability to be true to Her mission, and would give Her Clergy and faithful more credibility in doing so.

  4. wolfeken says:

    This won’t happen. It would be a logistical — and political — disaster. Even voting booths sometimes have a crucifix inches away if in a church hall.

    The point of this is to distract people, then smaller things can be slipped by you. The pro-abortion side did this with FOCA. It never existed, and caused a lot of people to take their eyes off the issues at hand. While pro-lifers fought a pretend piece of legislation, about ten pro-abortion victories were won (D.C. taxdollars now fund abortion locally, the Mexico City policy is gone, etc.) in Congress.

    I recommend fighting the men on the battlefield, not rumors of upcoming wars.

  5. Peggy R: Also, if you look back at the first Thanksgiving Day proclamation of this administration, we find that it was the first one ever to avoid making a direct invocation of God. It merely quotes from, I believe, one of George Washington’s proclamations.

  6. adt6247 says:

    It’s about time that the Catholic church stops accepting funds from the US federal and state governments. They should never accept funding from a government that isn’t a confessional state. To do so is foolhardy. If you take the king’s pense, you dance his tune. If the government you’re accepting money from is evil in its very foundations and principals, such as the US government, the Church should have as little to do with it as possible.

  7. Peggy R says:

    Fr Z: Yes, good point. This is a very godless administration that some Americans voted in.

    To add to Wolfeken, I voted in NoVa in what I think would be called the sanctuary (?) of a local synagogue, in the area where the worship services occurred.

    Interestingly, I heard clips of Obie’s quick response to the earthquake in Haiti. He invoked God in a way that frankly sounded genuine. Does he believe more in a God for blacks than for whites (America is primarily white, and he sees it that way, see Rev. Wright)? Is it a sense of greater empathy for poor suffering dark-skinned people (who are indeed worthy of empathy, dont’ get me wrong), than for the average white American, who, eg, was scared to death and almost lost their lives on that flight to Detroit?

  8. medievalist says:

    How is it, exactly, that the Faith Council is debating covering up symbols of faith? This sounds a bit like, say, a Ministry of Peace being in charge of war.

  9. Charivari Rob says:

    Here’s some information from the White House site, Father:


    “The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships also coordinates the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This Advisory Council is a group of 25 leaders from both faith-based and non-sectarian organizations, each serving 1-year terms. The Advisory Council forms recommendations on how the Federal Government can more effectively partner with faith-based and neighborhood organizations.”

    As to membership, it’s supposedly a 25-member council, 1 year terms.

    This link has 23 names: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ofbnp/about/council

    Diane Baillargeon – President and CEO, Seedco

    Anju Bhargava – President, Asian Indian Women in America; Principal Director, Global Synergy Associates

    Bishop Charles E. Blake – Presiding Bishop, Church of God in Christ

    Noel Castellanos – CEO, Christian Community Development Association

    Dr. Arturo Chávez – President and CEO, Mexican American Catholic College

    Rev. Peg Chemberlin – President-Elect, National Council of Churches; Executive Director, Minnesota Council of Churches

    Fred Davie – Senior Director, The Arcus Foundation

    Nathan J. Diament – Director of Public Policy, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

    Dr. Joel C. Hunter – Senior Pastor, Northland, A Church Distributed

    Harry Knox – Director, Religion and Faith Program, Human Rights Campaign Foundation

    Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie – Bishop of the Thirteenth Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church

    Dalia Mogahed – Senior Analyst and Executive Director, The Center for Muslim Studies, Gallup

    Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. – Pastor Emeritus, Oliviet Institutional Baptist Church

    Dr. Frank Page – Pastor, Taylors First Baptist Church; President Emeritus, Southern Baptist Convention

    Eboo Patel – Founder and Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Core

    Anthony R. Picarello, Jr. – General Counsel, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

    Nancy Ratzan – President, National Council of Jewish Women

    Melissa Rogers – Director, Center for Religion and Public Affairs of the Wake Forest University Divinity School

    Rabbi David Saperstein – Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

    Reverend William J. Shaw – President, National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.

    Rev. Larry J. Snyder – President and CEO, Catholic Charities USA

    Richard E. Stearns – President, World Vision United States

    Judith Vredenburgh – President and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

    This earlier release (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/President-Obama-Announces-Additional-Members-of-Advisory-Council-on-Faith-Based-and-Neighborhood-Partnerships/) had the same names, plus two more:

    Rev. Jim Wallis – President & Executive Director, Sojourners Washington , DC

    Dr. Sharon Watkins – General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
    Indianapolis, IN

  10. SimonDodd says:

    Consider this: if they set so many restrictions that it’s impossible for faith-based operations to provide critical social services in good conscience, you drive them out of the market, thereby creating demands that these people already believe is within the natural competence of government to serve. The withdrawal of faith-based services serves as the pretext for government stepping into the vacuum it creates.

  11. Simon: And decreases the number of organizations that will want federal money.

  12. Titus says:

    Do they set policy or just make recommendations?

    This council is a White House office: its members are mere advisers to the president and are not subject to Senate approval. It is not an administrative agency (like, e.g., the FDA, SEC, EPA, etc.) subject to the Administrative Procedures Act (which requires a rigorous, public process for agencies promulgating regulations). Thus, the council does not have any rule- or law-making authority, per se. The documents they produce do not, by their own force, compel people to do or refrain from doing anything. To put it in the terms Fr. Z used, they do not “make policy.”

    That said, however, councils such as this have substantial power within the executive branch: they have influence and they do a lot of dirty, time-consuming work for other offices and agencies who may not have any interest in redoing the same work. They also operate with almost no oversight from other branches of government. The proposals they draft have a good likelihood of finding their way into executive orders, funding guidelines, or regulations that actually do bind certain groups.

  13. Eric says:

    Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs,…. laid ouit three possibilities the council could recommend:
    1. Making such religious icons not allowed for federally funded services.
    2. Allowing it only if no other religious neutral rooms
    3. Not requiring removal of such icons but encouraging religious orgs to be sensitive about the issue.

    How bout option #4. Stick it.

  14. SimonDodd says:

    Father, that’s an intuitive response, but it bears a second look. I’m not sure that they want to decrease the number of organizations that want federal money.

    The downside of providing federal grants is that the money has to be raised from taxation (either immediately, or later with interest in the form of deficit spending). But the folks who are running government today have no qualms about raising taxes, so we can say that there’s no significant downside from the perspective of those who will make the decision.

    What’s the upside of providing federal grants? Well, think again of who’s running government today and what their beliefs are. If you believe that the government that governs most governs best, if you have boundless confidence in the ability of Washington D.C. to micromanage everything and the efficacy of its doing so, there’s a significant upside. It’s this: Federal money extends the reach of federal policy control over private entities. Once you take federal money, you very quickly become inured to it, and that leaves you open to extortion when Congress later attaches strings to continued receipt of that money. We saw a demonstration of this in FAIR v. Rumsfeld a couple of years ago: a private grantee, even one that very strongly opposes a given federal policy to the point of active resistance, can be brought to heel by the threat of withdrawing federal money. (The same goes for states, too, as we saw in South Dakota v. Dole, which I take to have been Sarah Palin’s point when she spoke in Evansville last year and warned states against accepting the so-called “stimulus” money.)

    Since the spending power has no affirmative limits, see Paulson, A Government of Adequate Powers, 31 Harv. J. of L. & P.P. 991, 998-1001 (2008), offering federal money is a very effective way for federal power to reach beyond its Constitutional limits. (The modifier affirmative is important: obviously the spending power must still be exercised within the limitations on all federal power that we usually call “constitutional rights.”) Given the maximalist view of federal power held by most liberals, it seems like a tool they would want to retain.

    In the instant case, we have a government of secular liberals who love big government and who don’t like religion very much. By threatening to cut off federal money if faith-based services do not functionally secularize their public face, the administration has a win-win situation: either the faith-based services will buckle under the pressure, and the liberal agenda to crush faith out of the public square will advance another step, or they will withdraw from the field, supplying the pretext I mentioned above, and the liberal agenda to supersize the federal government will advance another step. It’s a very elegantly insidious dilemma they’re trying to impale us upon.

  15. Penta says:

    Note that this would impact upon *Every university in the country*. If you take Pell Grants, you take federal funding, to name one example.

    It goes way past ND and Georgetown to universities one would class as orthodox in their teaching.

    And refusing federal money is not an option for virtually all universities – not unless you want to see tuition break $50k routinely. And that would be after partial scholarships. Certainly, I know of no Catholic university with an endowment big enough to take that kind of hit.

    Most Church relief programs are similar – there’s no way they could make up in private money what they get from the federal government in grants. The amounts are simply too large.

    That said, I would be really surprised if this survives to implementation – imagine what blue dog members of Congress would say, to say the least.

    So: Yes, it looks bad. But *relax*, the chances of it making it into the wild aren’t good.

    Father Z, thanks for the alert on it….But your tone (and the tone here in the combox) is alarmist, to be honest. Well-intentioned, but hyperventilating. It’s disingenuous (I know I probably just misspelled that) to suggest that *everything* the group puts forth will be adopted by agencies, or even considered seriously.

    Government simply doesn’t *work* that way – for every anti-Catholic/anti-religion secularist on one of these committees, the Cabinet departments in question have any number of civil servants who’d look at that, look at the impact upon their “customers” at universities/churches/etc and go “WTF?”, regardless of their beliefs.

  16. robtbrown says:

    Note that this would impact upon Every university in the country. If you take Pell Grants, you take federal funding, to name one example.
    Comment by Penta

    Don’t Pell Grants go to students, rather than universities?

  17. Penta says:

    They apply to a specific student – they’re *paid to* universities directly, if I remember correctly. Much the same way as, say, ROTC scholarships go directly from government to university.

    That’s the way I had them explained to me when I asked a financial aid type at my alma mater, anyway – essentially, they’re the government saying “If you take this student, we’ll pay you X dollars”.

  18. Subvet says:

    The charities should refuse to accept any government money. Tell them to put it where the sun never shines.

    One nickel at a time.

  19. Salvatore_Giuseppe says:

    In my experience, the majority of people who get assistance from food pantries, homeless shelters, etc. that are affliated with a church, the people receiving assistance are generally not of that same denomination or even religion.

    Also in my experience, not a single one of them cared.

    Telling the organization that they would have to cover symbols is ridiculous. Will groups such as “St. Matthew Food Pantry”(made up, don’t go looking around your town :P ) also have to cover up its sign?

  20. TJerome says:

    I guess this Administration is none too familiar with the US Constitution. There is such a thing as “Freedom of Association.” Tom

  21. Fr Martin Fox says:

    The idea that “religious icons” should be covered up is ridiculous, and I think someone reasonable in the media (they do exist) could have some fun with this:

    > How big a tarp would be needed to cover up the cross, steeple and religious imagery on the front of old-style churches and school buildings?

    > How about a reporter goes down to St. So-and-so Soup Kitchen, and asks all the hungry folks if they are offended by the images of Jesus, the crosses, the images of Mary, the schoolchildren’s drawings of Noah’s ark, etc., around them on the walls.

    I’d put up $10–no, $20–for charity for every hungry person who says, “you know, I am offended by that! Someone needs to cover that up!” I’ll gladly collect just $5 for charity for everyone who says, “no, I like that.”

    But, yeah, this is why taking any of the government’s gelt is risky. It’s why I’m relieved not to have to decide to accept vouchers at our school–because I pity the pastor who has to tell a school board or pastoral council that the funding will be refused; many of his own folks will say, “what’s the big deal–we need the money!”

  22. Cathomommy says:

    You know, this story in and of itself is not that huge or shocking, but combined with others recently, I am suddenly convinced of the necessity of preparing my children for possible martyrdom in their lifetime. Luckily we homeschool so we still have the time and the freedom to do this. I would warn any homeschoolers out there, however, against signing up with the “free” virtual charter schools that are springing up in some states (e.g. Ohio). They promise you free curriculum, free teacher help and assistance with grading, money for field trips and activities, even a free laptop and paid internet access. Just remember, these are still “public schools”, but located in your home rather then the school building. I would imagine if regulations were passed that banned religious symbols from being present where federal funds were used, this could even apply to your home.

  23. robtbrown says:

    Pell Grant money can go to the school or to the student.

    Your school can apply Pell Grant funds to your school costs, pay you directly (usually by check), or combine these methods. The school must tell you in writing how much your award will be and how and when you’ll be paid. Schools must disburse funds at least once per term (semester, trimester, or quarter). Schools that do not use semesters, trimesters, or quarters must disburse funds at least twice per academic year.

  24. robtbrown says:

    BTW, fed money via the GI Bill has long been paid for study at a religious univ. In fact, I know a priest who paid for seminary via the GI Bill.

  25. Cavaliere says:

    A couple months back I was at a Team Vianney night at St. John Vianney, the college seminary at St. Thomas U. in St. Paul. One of the seminarians spoke about a project he was working on to restore Crucifixes to the classrooms and other buildings on campus. One of the priests/faculty that he had to deal with gave him a series of hoops to jump through, perhaps thinking this would deter the young man, in order to accomplish this. When the seminarian returned a few weeks later, having done what the priest asked, he was met with a a rather surprised look from Father. Something like, oh you were serious. Well Fr. had a new wrinkle. Now it seems he felt that it wouldn’t be possible after all because the school is receiving various Federal grants and loans. Please pray for this young seminarian who is also the head of the Knights of Columbus on campus. He is not afraid of a challenge and very willing to stand up to defend the Faith.

  26. wanda says:

    Wolfeken, This won’t happen? Don’t look now, but it is already under way. Europe, shools ordered to remove Crucifixes, Georgetown U.-cover up that Crucifix-can’t have O standing in front of that thing. Crisis pregnancy centers harassed & forced to put up signs or pay a fine, ‘no abortions here, folks, no contraception either, sorry!’ O being ‘honored’ at Notre Shame U. No Nativity Scenes, no Ten Commandemnts on display. These are just a few examples.

    At Charivari Rob’s post we can click on the WH link & send an email to White House & Faith Based group a message. (You might get put on a terror watch List, though.)

    Eric, I vote for Option #4.
    Subvet, Good refinement on Option #4.

  27. NDPhys says:

    I wonder how far some would want this to go. Scientific research funding in Universities for the most part comes from the DOE, DOD, NSF, NASA, NIH, just to name a few. This money is paid out to Universities in support of research activities. Would they desire, if nothing else, the places where this research takes place to be devoid of religious symbols? This would require even the now illustrious University of Notre Dame to remove some such symbols, as it is still policy for there to be a crucifix in all rooms.

    What ever happened to the free exercise clause, anyway?

  28. Bill in Texas says:

    You know, if every Catholic in the country would suck it up and tithe an honest 10%, we could pay for all the services, education, and insurance we need, and tell the government to take a hike.

    Yes, I tithe, and give alms on top of that. No, it isn’t easy. Yes, it is do-able. It just involves making some choices.

  29. Immaculatae says:

    Frankly,this should not surprise anyone after Georgetown. It has come down to choosing between God or money,abortion& homosexuality these are litmus tests. I think it will make more apparent who within the Church has separated themselves from the truth. They may retain the structure of the Catholic Church, but once they make the choice to bargain with the- uh- (you-know)- they will have broken away from the Catholic Church.

  30. JAZ says:

    There is at least one Catholic college that accepts no federal funds. Christendom College says the following on their web site:

    “Since the College’s founding, the Financial Aid Program has been funded through the consistent generosity of the College’s donors. Christendom accepts no direct federal aid, nor does it participate in indirect programs of federal aid such as the Guaranteed Student Loan program. All financial aid applicants are ineligible for any form of federal assistance, either direct or indirect, except for Social Security benefits and Veterans Administration benefits which are paid directly to the student.”

    There is also at least one non-Catholic college that accepts no federal funds. Hillsdale College says the following on their web site:

    “On the pretext that some of its students were receiving federal loans, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare attempted to interfere with the College’s internal affairs, including a demand that Hillsdale begin counting its students by race. Hillsdale’s trustees responded with two toughly worded resolutions: One, the College would continue its policy of non-discrimination. Two, ‘with the help of God,’ it would ‘resist, by all legal means, any encroachments on its independence.’

    Following almost a decade of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against Hillsdale in 1984. By this time, the College had announced that rather than complying with unconstitutional federal regulation, it would instruct its students that they could no longer bring federal taxpayer money to Hillsdale. Instead, the College would replace that aid with private contributions.”

  31. When I was a little boy, the Sisters would tell us stories of MARTYRS who had given their lives for the Church. At Confirmation, the Bishop would strike each candidate (gently!) on the face to remind him/her they might have to give their lives for Christ. We were told that Cardinals wore scarlet to remind them they might have to shed their blood for Christ and His Church. My father attended a seminary called Theophane Venard in Clark’s Summit, PA. named for a French Catholic missionary martyred in Indochina in the 19th century. Are you readers laughing yet? Is anyone going to suggest that this rotting husk in any way resembles the Church in which I was raised? Kenneth Whitehead has written books on the fact that a religious institution receiving monies from the U.S. Gov’t. is not obliged to drop its religious curriculum. Do you know what mayors across Italy are telling the E.U. when it requires they remove crucifixes in PUBLIC schools? I am sure Fr. Z. would not want me to say it. Do you know why Notre Dame and Georgetown rush to cover up symbols which represent Christ? Because, THEY RESPECT OBAMA MORE THAN THEY DO CHRIST!

  32. muckemdanno says:

    The government has arrogated to itself the right to extract money (i.e. – steal) from the citizenry in order to engage in philanthropy such as giving money to the poor. Once their right to do that is accepted, then there is no limit to how much they can take from us…from each according to his ability, to each according to his need…now the banks are in need, now the car companies, now the poor, etc, etc.

    See Bastiat:

    “You say: “There are persons who have no money,” and you turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from a source outside the society. Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to send it in. If every person draws from the treasury the amount that he has put in it, it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But this procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of equalization only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the law does this, it is an instrument of plunder…With this in mind, examine the protective tariffs, subsidies, guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public works. You will find that they are always based on legal plunder, organized injustice…”



    Violations of the 5th Commandment are sinful, even if done by the government!

  33. Supertradmom says:

    One of my concerns is that some of us here and in the larger Catholic community both do not believe this can happen, and some do not care. I worked in a Catholic high school in Canada where the corpus was removed from all the crucifixes and hidden in a drawer by the priest chaplain. He said he did not want to offend the Protestants who were attending the school. It is not just governments who change the culture, but those in the Church as well, who are misled by “feelings” of false ecumenism or political correctness.

    In the coming Age of Martyrs, the Catholic Church is the United States and Europe will be stronger….

  34. Supertradmom says:

    May I add to what William Phelan wrote above about ND and Georgetown respecting Obama more than Christ–yes, and also fearing government more than fearing the Lord.

  35. mfg says:

    Re Catholic colleges and other Catholic entities: Oops! Ya thhink they woulda thoughta this 40 years ago. It’s not as though they weren’t warned

  36. Elly says:

    muckemdanno or anyone else- so do you think ideally the government should not be involved in any amount of philanthropy? That sounds so harsh but maybe its the only way to avoid these problems. What about relief for Haiti? But then if we accept that there is no limit…?

  37. wolfeken says:

    Wanda — my experience has been it is most always the spineless Catholic school that covers up its faith, not by order of the government.

    There are plenty of Catholic institutions that take government money and do not compromise on either values or statues. The weak (i.e. Jesuit) schools will cave — but let’s be clear that THEY are the ones making those decisions.

    I think we need to be a little more realistic about these matters and, yes, do a little homework before we speak.

  38. MichaelJ says:

    I think I can help clear this up. You see, it’s not “government money” or “federal money” it’s my money that has been taken from me.

    So, I hereby irrevocably grant and Catholic institution the perpetual right to use my money as it sees fit, governed only by the precepts of the Church.

Comments are closed.