No American should be denied a taxpayer-funded job because of what he or she believes about religion. Yet that’s exactly what is happening today under the “faith-based” initiative. It’s wrong, and it time for it to stop.
The idea of awarding tax aid to religious groups to run various secular programs for people in need is not new. As a strict advocate of separation of church and state, I’m not a huge fan of the idea, but courts have permitted such public aid under certain conditions.
What is new is the insistence that religious groups can take tax aid and still engage in overt discrimination on religious grounds when hiring staff. This concept was aggressively promoted by the administration of President George W. Bush. It was a bad idea then, and it hasn’t improved with age.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama promised to continue giving funds to religious groups but vowed to “strengthen the constitutional footing of the faith-based initiative,” including ending the Bush-era policy of officially sanctioning preferential religious-based hiring (that is, discriminatory hiring) in programs receiving tax dollars.
I think Obama recognized that it poses unacceptable civil rights and civil liberties problems to give massive federal subsidies to religious organizations to run social service programs and then let them turn away qualified job applicants because the applicants hold the “wrong” views about religion.
Slowly and laboriously, President Obama did make some changes. The White House issued an executive order that presented some enhanced transparency in grant making. It also included a guarantee that people could receive a secular alternative if they didn’t want their social services delivered in places of worship festooned with scriptures and icons they didn’t accept. (It remains to be seen how this plays out on the ground.)
However, as noted by Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, at a recent Brookings Institution gathering, the pesky hiring issue was officially “entirely unresolved.”
I’d call this a “close but no cigar” assessment of what is actually going on. I have no doubt that the administration didn’t want to resolve the hiring issue in the midst of a campaign where every opponent of the president had declared him the lead general in some completely nonexistent “war on religion.”
For several years, though, Obama administration officials have said that any discriminatory hiring in federally funded programs would be assessed on a “case-by-case” basis – although they didn’t disclose what standards were to be used to make or break the “case.” Standard-less reviews are usually referred to as “doing whatever you want,” not a well-known constitutional or administrative law standard.
At the Brookings event, DuBois acknowledged that “the policy is as it was before.” This has meant that a religious grant-seeker could simply assert – you might say “self-certify” – that it believed its religious practice would be “burdened” by not being allowed to take government funds and discriminate with them.
The Justice Department has acknowledged it affirmatively permitted nine grantees to use religion to discriminate in 2009 alone. There is no information on how many more of these waivers have been granted by other agencies or whether anyone’s “self-certified” assessment had been rejected.
Many people have heard that it is a burden to have to hire openly and without regard to some particular attribute. It’s an old argument. Airlines used to say they didn’t want to hire men as flight attendants because the then-overwhelmingly male business travelers felt more “comfortable” with service from pretty young women in skirts.
Comfort level in these instances has long been rejected as a legally permissible standard. Yet some religious voices of today make spiritual camaraderie a basis for using taxpayer dollars from all to hire only from a pool of those just like them. Under the faith-based initiative, this is elevated to some kind of constitutional rights claim instead of being relegated to the dustbin of invidious discrimination.
Our country first committed itself to the principle that no one should be disqualified from government-funded jobs because of his or her religion in 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order ending such discrimination.
Subsequent presidents – Republican and Democrat alike – recommitted themselves to this principle over the next several decades. As President John F. Kennedy explained, “[I]t is the plain and positive obligation of the United States government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment…on government contracts….”
After this longstanding national commitment to nondiscrimination was repudiated by the Bush administration, I was heartened in 2008, as a presidential candidate, Obama promised to return to our old principles.
“If you get a federal grant,” he said during a speech in Ohio, “you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion.”
Fulfilling that commitment should not be so hard. It would be a simple acknowledgment that Bush had been wrong in his failure to adhere to a decades-old commitment to a civil rights framework that didn’t allow religious discrimination either.
Much was made at Brookings of the work the current White House faith-based office does to encourage interfaith dialogue and programs in the United States and around the world. There was even a hint that this might help national security – and, yes, it might.
But it could also backfire. Is U.S. prestige overseas enhanced when we give tens of millions of dollars to groups like World Vision, an evangelical outfit active around the globe – even in predominately Hindu or Muslim nations – that requires employees to sign a Trinitarian Christian statement of faith?
More to the point, how can any administration make a case, with a straight face, that our national values are respected when some religious employers can receive taxpayer money even as they figuratively or literally post signs reading, “Help Wanted. No Jews, Muslims or Hindus Need Apply?”
Organizations – religious or otherwise – that take government money must abide by certain rules. That some religious groups don’t want to follow the rules does not mean their religious freedom rights have been violated; they aren’t entitled to these funds, nor are they required to take them. The organization can continue to do their work and discriminate with their own money.
The government should not fund efforts to use religion to discriminate. We must protect the religious freedom of our government employees and stand for the principle of nondiscrimination.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.