Baptist named to White House post

A Baptist church-state specialist has been selected to head President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

By Bob Allen

The White House announced March 13 that Melissa Rogers, a Baptist church-state specialist who formerly worked at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, will serve as special assistant to the president and director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Rogers, director of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and a non-resident senior fellow with The Brookings Institution, previously served as inaugural chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“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 morning.

melissa rogers portraitThe White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was first opened by President George W. Bush in 2001 and continued under President Obama. It serves to encourage partnerships between public and private entities to help meet the nation’s social-service needs.

Obama issued an executive order in 2010 addressing concerns related to the separation of church and state that were criticized during his administration’s early years. Those changes incorporated recommendations from a task force led by Rogers and comprised of religious and community leaders including BJC Executive Director Brent Walker.

Walker applauded her selection to head the faith-based office. “Melissa possesses a keen understanding of the First Amendment’s religion clauses and is sensitive to practical issues of their application,” he said.

“Her leadership in the church-state field -- as the BJC’s general counsel and as chair of the task force charged with reforming the office -- has made her the perfect choice to fill this important position in the Obama administration,” Walker added.

Hollyn Hollman, who succeeded Rogers as BJC general counsel, said she looks forward to Rogers’ leadership.

“Since the opening of the faith-based office, the Baptist Joint Committee’s focus has been safeguarding the standards that make private-public partnerships successful and consistent with constitutional standards that protect the religious liberty of individuals and social service providers,” Hollman said. “As a proven leader and expert on church-state law, Melissa is the most knowledgeable and capable person I can imagine to lead at this time.”

Interfaith Alliance head Welton Gaddy said 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.

A graduate of Baylor University, Rogers earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Before coming to Wake Forest she worked three years as first executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, launched in 2001.

During her tenure as BJC general counsel, Rogers helped lead a diverse coalition that was instrumental in bringing about the enactment of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

Rogers has testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on religious freedom issues and served as a draftsperson for several amicus briefs in church-state cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2004, National Journal recognized her as one of the church-state experts "politicians will call on when they get serious about addressing an important public-policy issue."

She is co-author of a 2008 casebook titled Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court. In 2010, her Wake Forest Center for Religion and Public Affairs released a publication titled Religious Expression in American Public Life: A Joint Statement of Current Law at The Brookings Institution.

Rogers is a panelist for the On Faith page of The Washington Post and has appeared on numerous television and radio broadcasts, including NBC Nightly News, CNN, Fox News, PBS and NPR. Her opinion-editorials have been published by media outlets such as ABC News, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Fort-Worth Star Telegram, Legal Times and Religion News Service.

Associated Baptist Press honored her in 2011 with its 13th Religious Freedom Award, established in 1994 to honor individuals who advance the principles and practice of religious liberty.

Rogers succeeds Joshua DuBois, a Pentecostal minister and one of President Obama’s longest-serving aides, who resigned Feb. 8 to teach, write a book and launch an organization.

Rogers is a member of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va. Her pastor, Jim Baucom, described her as both a “cherished and committed parishioner” and a good friend.

“I cannot imagine anyone better suited to this role than she,” Baucom said. “Melissa is that rare follower of Jesus who possesses in equal measure an evangelical heart, an open mind and a generous spirit.”

Baucom said Rogers is one of the first people he turns to when he needs help thinking clearly about complex issues of the day. “She is one of the most gifted bridge-builders I know, and I look forward to watching her steward this role well," he said.

-- Jeff Huett at the Baptist Joint Committee contributed to this story.