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President Obama Revamps

Bush Office on Religion

President Obama signed an executive order on Thursday to create a revamped White House office for religion-based and neighborhood programs, expanding an initiative started by the Bush administration that provides government support — and financing — to religious and charitable organizations that deliver social services.

“No matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone,” Obama said. “There is a force for good greater than government.”

In announcing the expansion of the religion office, Obama did not settle the biggest question: Can religious groups that receive federal money for social service programs hire only those who share their faith?

The Bush administration said yes. But many religious groups and others that are concerned about employment discrimination and protecting the separation of church and state had pushed hard for Obama to repeal the Bush policies.

Meanwhile, other religious groups were lobbying to preserve their right to use religion as a criterion in hiring. Some religious social service providers warned they might stop working with the government if they were forced to change policies.

Instead of deciding the issue, the president called on Thursday for a legal review of the policy case-by-case before determining whether religious groups can receive government money and selectively hire employees based on their religious beliefs.

Obama told an audience in Ohio last summer, “You can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them.”

Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister who led religious outreach for Obama during the presidential race, will direct the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. DuBois said in an interview, “The president is still very much committed to clear constitutionality and legality in this program. He’s committed to nondiscrimination.”

Britain Suspends Activities of Cultural Office in Iran

The British Council, a global cultural institution run by the British government, said Thursday that it had been forced to suspend its activities in Iran because of what it called “unacceptable” intimidation and harassment of its staff in Tehran.

That included locally hired staff members’ being summoned for interviews at the Iranian president’s office, where “it was suggested to them that they should resign from their posts with the British Council,” according to a statement by the group.

There was no immediate response from the Iranian authorities.

The announcement came a day after the U.S. women’s badminton team complained that its players had been denied visas to compete in a tournament in Tehran.

“Our athletes were very much looking forward to the event and are very disappointed that they will not be able to compete and meet new friends. Friendship through sport is a good thing that should be respected and cherished,” the team said in a statement on its Web site.

The statement said the athletes had earlier been told their visas had been approved and were asked to secure them in Dubai. The Associated Press quoted an Iranian official as saying there had not been enough time to process the visas.

The Obama administration has signaled a new, if conditional, readiness for dialogue with Iran, but Tehran’s response has been ambiguous.