White House picks Baptist, religious liberty scholar to head faith-based office

Published: Friday, March 15 2013 12:15 p.m. MDT

The White House has named a church-state legal scholar and known consensus builder to head up the administration’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Melissa Rogers, a Baptist and former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, served as chairwoman of an advisory panel of faith leaders President Obama created when he came to office and she helped plan the 2009 inauguration.

She will replace Joshua DuBois, who held the position since 2009 and stepped down in January.

In a press release about Rogers, DuBois called her an "excellent and truly visionary choice to lead the White House faith-based office," according to CNN.

“There is no better person to lead the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and bring the federal government into deeper, effective and constitutional partnership with faith-based and other nonprofit groups around the country,” DuBois wrote.

The faith-based office was created by President George W. Bush in 2001 and has focused on encouraging partnerships between public and private entities to help meet the nation’s social service needs.

“I’m honored to be able to serve President Obama by forging and promoting a wide range of effective partnerships with faith-based and secular nonprofits that help people in need," Rogers said Wednesday.

But the Washington Post reported that Rogers will also be facing several legal standoffs involving religious freedom, contraception and gay rights.

She's not stranger to navigating such issues. The Christian Post reported that she has led several efforts to seek common ground on contentious church-state conflicts, and her appointment has drawn praise from conservative Christians.

"I may differ with Rogers on certain policy and legal issues, but I have faith that she will always listen to a variety of views and make sure they are accurately conveyed," mega church Pastor Joel Hunter told the Christian Post.

"Melissa is an honest broker, a consensus-builder, and a problem-solver, and someone who believes that government should be actively engaged with civil society, including religious institutions and individuals, to promote the common good. I look forward to her service in the White House."

Hunter served with Rogers on the advisory council that crafted recommendations for a 2010 executive order issued by Obama that addressed many of the church-state separation concerns voiced by critics of the faith-based office. It amended prior federal policy by clarifying the government’s responsibility to ensure that partnerships are on secure legal grounds and do not violate the First Amendment’s ban on government promotion of religion.

Interfaith Alliance head Welton Gaddy told the Associated Baptist Press that much work remains in the faith-based office on resolving issues such as whether sectarian organizations that accept taxpayer dollars should be allowed to discriminate in hiring based on religion. (He believes they should not.)

"I know of no individual better suited to oversee this important endeavor — with sensitivity to the competing views and priorities at play and with great integrity — than Melissa Rogers," said Gaddy, an ordained Baptist minister.

Her appointment also drew praise from the Becket Fund of Religious Liberty, a law firm specializing in First Amendment and religious liberty issues. “Melissa has been a widely respected voice in the field of religious liberty for many years and we have had a fruitful working relationship with her,” stated Kristina Arriaga, the Becket Fund’s executive director. “We look forward to working with her in her new role.”

Other religious liberty issues brewing are how to protect religious businesses and individuals who don’t wish to affirm same-sex marriage but still respect the rights of same-sex couples; and the legal standoff over the health care law, which requires most faith groups, except houses of worship — to make contraception available to their employees.

"Rogers, a Baptist, was among those who warned the White House about the conflict and urged finding ways to protect objectors," the Post reported.

Rogers has served as director of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and as a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. She also teaches courses on church-state relations and Christianity and public policy within the divinity school.

Rogers previously served as the executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. She has co-authored a case book on religion and law for Baylor University Press, "Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court."

She earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was a member of the National Moot Court team and a Legal Writing instructor. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Baylor University.

email: mbrown@desnews.com

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