Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Blog

  • Protecting Religious Freedom

    Today is Religious Freedom Day, marking the anniversary of the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which ultimately provided the inspiration and framework of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. In his Religious Freedom Day Proclamation President Obama calls on us to “celebrate America’s legacy of religious liberty” and “resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.”

    One way that the federal government seeks to ensure that these principles are put into practice is through enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  Passed by unanimous consent in 2000 with the support of a religiously and ideologically diverse coalition of groups, RLUIPA seeks to ensure religious freedom in two important areas:  the ability of religious communities to build places of worship and other religious institutions, and the ability of prisoners and other persons confined to institutions to continue to practice their faiths. 

    Prior to RLUIPA, Congress had found widespread discrimination against places of worship in local zoning decisions: discrimination against minority faiths, against Christian churches with members from racial minorities, and against smaller and newer churches.  Congress also found that places of worship as a category faced discrimination, excluded from zones where nonreligious places of assembly, like fraternal organizations, theaters, and community centers were permitted. 

    As Senator Orrin Hatch and the late Senator Edward Kennedy, RLUIPA’s Senate sponsors, noted:  “The right to assemble for worship is at the very core of the free exercise of religion.  Churches and synagogues cannot function without a physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements.”  Congress thus passed RLUIPA, which prevents discrimination against religious institutions in zoning and landmarking decisions, and also prevents application of these laws in ways that imposes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise without a compelling government reason.  Suits may be brought by the affected religious institutions or individuals, as well as by the Department of Justice.

    A Department of Justice report on the 10th anniversary of RLUIPA found that the law had a “dramatic impact in its first ten years on protecting the religious freedom of and preventing religious discrimination against individuals and institutions seeking to exercise their religions through construction, expansion, and use of property.”  The report noted that these cases represented a wide range of religious groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, people who practice Native American traditional religions, and many others, and arose in a wide range of settings, including churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, religious schools, prayer meetings in homes, and faith-based social services such as homeless shelters, group homes, and soup kitchens.

    RLUIPA’s land use protections continue to protect a wide range of religious institutions.   Recent cases include helping a small independent church in Mississippi and a large Hispanic Southern Baptist Church in Arizona  to locate in downtown areas on an equal basis with nonreligious assemblies; winning a consent decree to permit a Buddhist congregation  in Walnut, California to construct a temple; helping win the right for a small Hasidic Jewish congregation to locate in a residential neighborhood in Los Angeles; and obtaining a consent decree allowing an Islamic Center in Lomita, California, to replace its aging and inadequate complex with a single mosque building.  

    RLUIPA also protects the religious freedom rights of persons confined to prisons, jails, mental institutions and state-run nursing homes.  While security and other unique needs of such institutions will mean that people in them do not have all the freedoms they have outside of them, Senators Hatch and Kennedy noted that “some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways” and that “prison officials sometimes impose frivolous or arbitrary rules” such as denying matzo bread to Jews at Passover or refusing to allow prisoners to wear small crosses that did not pose security risks.  In December 2013, the Department of Justice won a Preliminary Injunction against the State of Florida requiring it to offer Kosher meals to prisoners whose faith requires them, and the Department recently reached a consent decree with a county jail in South Carolina to allow prisoners to obtain religious texts, secondary religious materials, and religious items used in worship.

    The values embodied in RLUIPA are universal ideals.  Department of Justice attorneys have provided technical assistance on issues involving construction of places of worship to government officials in Spain, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries wrestling with these same issues.  In 2012, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee won the right to move into its new mosque with the help of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Department of Justice. On the day of the court decision, the mosque’s Imam, Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, remarked that America’s dedication to religious freedom can serve as a model for others around the world, and added:   “I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution.”

    Melissa Rogers is Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  Eric Treene is Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination at the Department of Justice.

  • 50 Years Later, Commerce Works to Keep Fighting Poverty

    Ed. note: This is cross-posted from Commerce.gov. See the original post here.


    “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America…It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, State of the Union, January 8, 1964."

    Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty. The effort, which consisted of anti-poverty programs aimed at improving education and healthcare access, feeding the hungry, and ensuring a livelihood for our seniors, was an important step in both our country’s awareness of and commitment to fighting the hurdles, hardships and lack of opportunity faced by people living below the poverty line.

    Over the past 50 years, federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have played a critical role in the national effort to fight poverty. Today, these and other anti-poverty initiatives have contributed to a reduction in overall poverty rates and are currently keeping close to 40 million Americans from falling below the poverty line. In addition to a decrease in the overall poverty rate during this time, the poverty rate among seniors has fallen from roughly 30 percent in the mid-1960s to 9.1 percent in 2012.

    The Obama administration has worked hard to help create jobs, improve our schools, increase access to healthcare, and ensure fair treatment for everyone working and seeking work. And the effort to continue fighting poverty remains a top priority for President Obama. According to the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau, 49.7 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, were in poverty in 2012. Furthermore, a Census report released yesterday found that 3.6 percent of our population experienced chronic poverty between 2009 and 2011. During that same period of time, nearly one in three Americans lived in poverty for at least two months.

  • History Is a Great Teacher

    Ed. note: This is cross-posted from fema.gov. See the original post here.

    Rev. David Myers, left, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, speaks to First Baptist Church Pastor Joshua Monda

    Rev. David Myers, left, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, speaks to First Baptist Church Pastor Joshua Monda who is helping some of his parishioners with cleanup in areas impacted by the recent tornadoes. Myers met with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster groups to discuss responses to the disaster and discuss coordination and collaboration between partners, Washington, Ill., December 5, 2013. FEMA photo by Jocelyn Augustino.

    History is a great teacher. 

    Associate Pastor Ben Davidson of Bethany Community Church learned a valuable lesson during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that benefitted him and his congregation the morning of Nov. 17, 2013, when a powerful tornado tore through Washington IL. 

    His quick thinking reminds me when disasters occur; having a plan can save lives and help pivot a community toward a strong recovery. I have learned this lesson many times through the faith leaders I’ve engaged as director of the DHS Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

    On Sunday morning Pastor Davidson was preparing to begin his adult Sunday school class, when he received an emergency phone call.  A tornado had touched down and their church was in its path.

    Immediately he and the staff worked to move the congregation --particularly the children -- to their designated shelter in the church location and they began to pray together as the storm passed through their community. 

  • Tune In: White House Diwali Celebration

    First Lady Michelle Obama dances with students during Diwali

    President Barack Obama watches as First Lady Michelle Obama dances with students during a Diwali candle lighting and performance at Holy Name HIgh School in Mumbai, India, Nov. 7, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

    Tomorrow, the White House will celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, for the fifth time since President Obama took office. This year, First Lady Michelle Obama will provide remarks and light the diya, or lamp.

    Watch the First Lady’s remarks live at  starting at WhiteHouse.gov/Live 4:00 p.m. EST

    And check out this statement from President Obama on the Observance of Diwali.

    Gautam Raghavan is an Advisor in the White House Office of Public Engagement.

  • Philadelphia Fights Hunger Through Academic, Faith and Community Partnerships

    The Director of USDA’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Norah Deluhery, eats lunch with kids

    The Director of USDA’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Norah Deluhery, eats lunch with kids at a Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Nutritional Development Services (NDS) summer food service site. The Center maintains integral relationships with partners like NDS to ensure disadvantaged children don’t go hungry when school is out.

    The City of Brotherly Love puts its motto into practice. I saw this firsthand when I travelled to Philadelphia to meet with a network of community leaders who partner with USDA through its Summer Food Service Program. With this program, USDA subsidizes nutritious summer lunches for students who need them and works with community partners to deliver those meals.

    In Philadelphia, about 22% of children live in households that have trouble putting enough food on the table for every member of the family. That means when school is out, and school meals are not available, many kids are vulnerable. The Summer Food Service Program plays a critical role in making sure kids have access to nutritious meals so that they can begin the school year well nourished and alert. My friend and former director of the White House’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives during the George W. Bush Administration, Professor John DiIulio, invited me to Philadelphia where he currently works at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fox Leadership Program.

  • Taking Action to Eradicate Modern-day Slavery

    Last year, President Obama articulated an ambitious and multifaceted agenda to combat human trafficking in his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. This week, the Administration took two important steps to advance that agenda. 

    In 2012, the President charged the Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships with making recommendations for strengthening the partnerships the federal government forms with community organizations, both religious and secular, to prevent and combat trafficking. The Advisory Council delivered its report of recommendations, “Building Partnerships to Eradicate Modern-day Slavery,” to the President in April 2012. 

    In partial fulfillment of those recommendations, we welcomed more than one hundred leaders to the White House this week for a day-long convening focused on human trafficking. The gathering included heads of religious denominations, rabbis and nuns, CEOs of large non-profits such as the United Way and Girl Scouts, foundation leaders, along with human trafficking survivors and experts, all united in their interest to join forces to eradicate modern-day slavery. Participants discussed ways their organizations can work together to raise awareness and educate the public, identify victims, expand services for survivors and eliminate slavery in the goods and products we consume. We look forward to continuing to work with this group in coming days.