Melissa Rogers speaks to press

A Baptist church-state expert named to head a White House office says she will bring a Baptist point of view but work with people of different faiths.

By Robert Dilday

The new head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships told reporters March 22 she values Baptists’ “special gift to the nation” -- religious liberty -- and looks forward to tackling religious liberty issues in her new role.

melissa rogers portraitMelissa Rogers, a Baptist church-state expert who has been on the faculty of Wake Forest University School of Divinity, said in a conference call organized by the White House that she both understands the Baptist “point of view” and aims to work with adherents of “different faiths and none.”

“Baptists have always joined hands across lines with those of many faiths and those who don’t claim faith and have a commitment to the common good,” said Rogers. “The Baptist history of religious liberty is a special gift to the nation and I look forward to working on religious liberty issues in this new role.”

Rogers, who was appointed March 13, had been director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest, where she also taught courses on church-state relations and Christianity and public policy. She is a former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and is a member of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va.

The office is tasked with forming partnerships between government and nonprofit organizations -- both faith-based and secular -- to meet human needs.

Among the first issues Rogers will face will be whether faith-based partners, which receive federal money, can continue to hire or fire staff on the basis of religion -- a contentious issue since President George W. Bush created the office in 2001.

In the past, she has disagreed with the current policy. “While I believe religious organizations should have full freedom to make religious calls regarding jobs subsidized by tithes and offerings, when government-funded jobs are involved, I believe the calculus changes,” the New York Times quoted her as saying in 2011.

But asked twice about the issue in the March 22 conference call, Rogers said the administration is still reviewing the policy and “I will carry out President Obama’s views on this.”

In response to another question, Rogers acknowledged tensions between the administration and Catholics over the contraception mandate, but said she hopes her work over the years with the Catholic Conference of U.S. Bishops and “scores of Catholic friends” will provide a basis for working together.

“I’m really looking forward to reaching out to these folks and making new friends,” she said. “I want to work with them to promote the common good and address these issues in the most positive way possible.”

Rogers said she anticipates ramping up the office’s partnerships in combating human trafficking, malaria and tuberculosis, making flu vaccinations more accessible, recruiting volunteers in public schools and challenging college students to be more deeply engaged in service projects.