Faith in federal funding

The House moves to fund faith-based groups that hire and fire based on religious discrimination.

By Page Rockwell
Published March 8, 2005 9:23PM (EST)

Last Tuesday, President Bush continued to push his faith-based initiative when he gave a speech scolding Congress for creating a government culture that he called "unfriendly" to religious groups. The following day, the House took the hint and passed a Bush-backed jobs bill that would allow federally funded faith-based organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion when they hire and fire employees.

Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, it makes an exception for religious groups, which are permitted to make employment decisions based on employees' religious beliefs. But so far, that privilege has not been extended to faith-based groups that receive federal funding. The current legislation would change that, allowing religious groups with discriminatory hiring practices to receive federal funds for their job-training programs.

It's not a done deal yet -- the jobs bill is unlikely to get a friendly reception in the Senate, which has blocked similar bills in the past. But even if the Senate doesn't pass the legislation, the Bush administration has a backup plan: the Department of Justice's religious-rights division. Though the question of whether religious organizations may legally receive federal funding remains unresolved, the DOJ has already been defending the right of federally funded religious groups to evaluate employees based on their religious beliefs, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.

In 2003 the Salvation Army began screening current and prospective employees with regard to their Christian faith. One test, according to the Times, called for disclosure of church affiliations and ministers' names, while another required those tested "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination." The policy prompted lawsuits in 2003 and 2004; the plaintiffs expressed concern that the newly religious atmosphere might interfere with Salvation Army abortion and HIV-prevention counseling. Some also complained that, because low-income residents in many cities are required to participate in government-funded aid programs, the Salvation Army's receipt of government funds might constitute religious coercion.

But the gospel of John Ashcroft's Justice Department was that the Salvation Army's civil rights were being compromised -- not those of its employees or program participants. The DOJ said the lawsuit jeopardized "the federal statutory and constitutional rights of religious employers," and thereby dismissed the employees' discrimination claims as "irrelevant."

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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