In 2008, candidate Obama told an audience in Zanesville, Ohio, that he would make major changes in the way religious entities were funded. Under President George W. Bush's "faith-based" program, government grants and contracts went to religious groups to provide social services, even when those groups insisted on discriminatory hiring practices -- applicants could be denied federally funded jobs, based solely on religious affiliation or beliefs.
During his presidential campaign, Obama specifically promised that "if you get a federal grant, 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."
Supporting charities that help the needy is good public policy, and our Advisory Council recommendations will make it better, says Melissa Rogers.
Some "faith based" organizations maintain that even when a job is secular and "menial," they feel more "comfortable" hiring only those of their own religious tradition. This sounds like what airlines used to say when men sought jobs as flight attendants: "Our passengers feel more comfortable with pretty women." Comfort level is not a justification for discrimination in employment when government funds or regulations are involved.
Other "discrimination is acceptable" advocates claim that hiring people who don't pass a spiritual litmus test will somehow "dilute" or otherwise alter the "character" of their institution. What does this really mean? Apparently, the influx of gobs of government cash doesn't affect the mission, but having to hire a gay Presbyterian janitor would pollute the atmosphere. These arguments are as silly as they are sanctimonious.
While addressing other Bush-era legacies may be daunting, extracting America from this particular policy would not be difficult -- requiring only an Executive Order. Yet the Obama administration has resisted numerous opportunities to listen to civil-rights groups and shred the policy.
Last September, 58 of the nation's civil rights organizations asked Attorney General Eric Holder to rescind a 2008 legal memorandum that specifically permitted the relief group World Vision to maintain its "Christian only" hiring policy, a regimen that includes requiring employees to sign a statement of belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. This memo gave the group unfettered access last year to nearly $300 million of taxpayer money.
A journalist for the Global Post recently spent several months in Africa uncovering a high level of dissatisfaction among non-Christian locals who had been denied job opportunities. World Vision director Fabiano Franz dismissed complaints with the bizarre claim: "We're very clear from the beginning about hiring Christians. It's not a surprise, so it's not discrimination." Apparently, Franz believes that an announced intent to be bigoted makes it perfectly fine.
Holder has yet to even respond to the coalition letter, and some other religious entities choose to continue to rely on the Bush-era memo to justify their own discriminatory policies. A White House advisory council on faith-based programs presented its recommendations to senior White House officials Tuesday, but it was told at its inception not to touch the 800-pound gorilla in the room -- discriminatory hiring by religious groups with tax dollars.
In a letter written in 1790 by George Washington to the first synagogue in the country, he expressed the sentiment that this new nation would move beyond mere "tolerance" of non-Christian faiths, declaring that America would give "to bigotry no sanction."
Sadly, 220 years later, we are giving discriminatory theologies more than mere official blessings; we are giving them funding as well. Our president, a former University of Chicago constitutional law professor, ought to know better than to let this continue.
Barry W. Lynn is the executive director of Americans United For Separation of Church and State. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and an attorney. Read more of his work on Red Room or in his book, "Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom."
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