Federal Way's World Vision president ready for new role at White House
Q&A with Richard Stearns, president of Federal Way-based World Vision, who was recently named to the advisory council for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Bellevue resident Richard Stearns is taking on a prominent role in the Obama White House.
Stearns, president of the Federal Way-based relief and development agency World Vision, was recently named to the advisory council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
He's taken a strong stand on one of the most controversial issues facing that office: whether to continue allowing faith groups that take federal funds to hire based on religious beliefs. Obama has put off that decision, seeking legal review first.
Stearns elaborated on his stance recently in a Q&A with The Seattle Times.
Q: What issues will you push the office to tackle?
A: My primary agenda dovetails with that of the president: to promote greater awareness that in a significant worldwide economic downturn, faith-based and other community organizations have an indispensable role to play in serving the poor and rebuilding our economy.
Q: What do you think of Obama putting off a decision on whether to continue President Bush's policy of allowing faith-based groups that receive federal funds to hire based on religious beliefs?
A: The right of faith-based organizations to hire based on religious beliefs far predates the Bush administration's faith-based initiative. It was established in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Moreover, the opportunity for these groups to receive federal funding was affirmed by President Clinton when he signed the so-called Charitable Choice laws and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
President Obama has taken a very pragmatic and responsible approach to this issue. He not only wants to see effective partnerships between the U.S. government and faith-based organizations, he also wants to make sure the partnerships are legal.
Q: You've said World Vision would not participate in the faith-based initiatives if it isn't allowed to hire based on religious beliefs. Why?
A: Our Christian faith has been foundational to our organizational culture and our work since World Vision was established in 1950. We pursue our humanitarian work as a community of people sharing deeply held faith values that express themselves in our concern for and work with the poor. We are no different than other mission-driven organizations that choose to hire people who affirm and embrace their organizational identity and values. Examples include Planned Parenthood and The Nature Conservancy.
If forced to choose between preserving our faith values or receiving government funds, we would have to walk away from the funding. Our mission and motivation are not for sale.
Q: When an organization receives taxpayer funding, isn't it realizing that there are strings attached? Why should such a group be exempted from federal anti-discrimination hiring rules?
A: Why should any faith-based organization — Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian — be forced to change its organizational identity and culture in order to receive public funds so long as those funds are used as they are intended: to deliver effective social services and not promote any religious beliefs?
World Vision has been receiving federal funds for our work serving the poor for more than 25 years — not because we are Christian, but because of the quality of our programs.
Q: If World Vision pulls out, what would be the impact? How much has World Vision received in faith-based-initiatives funding over the past, and for what kinds of programs?
A: Last year, World Vision received just over $280 million in federal grants — both cash and food — amounting to about 25 percent of what we received from U.S. sources. Little, if any, of this resulted from former President Bush's faith-based initiative. Those grants have met a wide range of needs including helping address AIDS in several nations, providing food for victims of famines, conducting gang-prevention activities in several U.S. cities including Seattle, and delivering aid and emergency services in responding to natural disasters.
Q: How do you feel about working on the advisory council with people who oppose federally funded faith-based hiring?
A: I welcome this opportunity to share my views and to hear the views of others. I believe all the council members share a commitment to continuing to empower community-based organizations — faith-based and secular — to serve the poor in the United States and in the developing world.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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