A Letter from Welton

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The Obama Administration knew they were inviting a critic to join this task force.  Indeed, U.S. News and World Report carried a story on my acceptance of the invitation on its blog.  Immediately after the presidential election, I had met with the Obama Transition Team to request that they abolish the faith-based office in the White House. At that time, they assured me that, while the incoming administration intended to pursue the faith-based initiative, they intended to do so with greater fidelity to the Constitution than their predecessors.
On March 9th, the recommendations of our task force were presented to cabinet members and other leaders in the Obama Administration who will engage the president in conversations about the issues we have raised.  Getting to this moment took a great deal of effort.  Members of the task force are incredibly diverse – racially, politically, professionally, religiously, economically and ideologically.  Some members wanted a relaxation of emphasis on church-state separation while others, like me, were interested in strengthening the constitutional guarantees that have saved our nation from the entanglement of religion and government that has caused problems in other nations.
Our recommendations encompass several key concerns – transparency, public postings of the recipients of government money and their intended use of it, attentiveness to religious freedom issues and more.  From the first time we met, however, one question had loomed larger than all of the rest – whether to mandate or only suggest that religious recipients of government funds form a separate legal entity into which to receive that money in order to protect the integrity of the religious organization and prevent a merger of taxpayer dollars with tithes and contributions from offering plates.  For a year, the debate went on – passionate but civil.  In the end, the vote on the recommendation endorsed the mandatory position – by a majority of one.  Such is the divide on the meaning of religious freedom in our nation as well.
As I sat in that White House office, I wondered if all of the time and work had been worth it to assure such a small step, to win what some would consider a minimal victory for religious freedom.  Yes is the answer that resounds inside me.  The fate of the big issues in our time are decided by hundreds of small steps taken, minor victories won and the Constitution defended word by word, one issue at a time.  At least for this moment, a slide toward government-subsidized religion has been stopped. And Interfaith Alliance’s role in this small step wouldn’t have been possible without you, our members and activists who have been so tirelessly vocal on this issue for so long.
This small step, this minor victory, likely will go virtually unnoticed as Washington argues much more visible issues.  But without this step the news would be big – journalists would report a sea-change, a major shift, in which legal and religious leaders endorsed a position contrary to the United States Constitution.  So goes the work of a lifetime, tracked one step at a time. Thank you for walking with us.