Religious Rights: Hiring Discrimination?

March 9, 2010

Today, President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will present their recommendations for his Faith-Based Office to him. Within the recommendations are many good ideas, such as requiring religious organizations that receive federal funding for secular social service programs to incorporate a separate 501(c) (3) organization so that taxpayer dollars are sequestered away from the organization’s religious funds. Other important reforms include more clearly defining prohibited uses of federal funds (like proselytizing). However, one key reform recommendation is notably absent: a law requiring religious organizations that receive federal funding to stop discriminating in their hiring practices based on religion.

That’s not the Advisory Council’s fault though. When the President formed the council and the administration decided on the issues it would tackle, discrimination in hiring was specifically left off the list. President Obama has since stated that the issue would be dealt with on a case by case basis within the Department of Justice (DOJ). Ignoring for a moment that this runs directly counter to a campaign pledge where then candidate Obama stated, “If you get a federal grant, you can’t discriminate…against the people you hire,” (We all know campaign speeches are meant to play to a different audience than actual governing is) this is still a fundamental mistake on the administration’s part for two reasons. First, dealing with discriminatory complaints on a case by case basis is a huge headache. Tying up key government resources in the DOJ to review each and every case wastes both time and money that could be better spent else ware. Second—and I would hope that President Obama might know this already—discrimination funded through taxpayer dollars is never ok, no matter what.

It wasn’t ok to publicly fund elections in which women and non-whites could not vote; it wasn’t ok to say “separate but equal” was the law of the land; and it wasn’t ok to prevent individuals from serving in our armed forces based on skin color or gender (we’re still working on sexuality, but we’ll get there). The point is, time and time again the government has said (after much deliberation) that federal institutions and organizations that receive even one federal dollar cannot discriminate. Why do we allow this to happen on a religious level?

The history of that is based, somewhat ironically, in the 1964 Civil Rights Act—specifically in an amendment passed in 1972. This amendment essentially protects religious organizations from nondiscriminatory hiring laws only on the basis of religious beliefs, and in some cases on gender (i.e. priests in the Catholic Church must be male). While this situation is clearly not ideal, it is the law, and religious organizations have generally been given certain rights and protections that do not necessarily extend to others (see: churches, tax exempt status of). So when Richard Stearns says in an interview with the Washington Post, “Our right to hire people who share our faith has been articulated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a 1972 amendment to that act, and in several cases that uphold that right,” I reluctantly agree, under one condition: that your organization does not receive taxpayer money to fund those discriminatory practices.

According to Stearns, “…to maintain our identity as a Christian organization, we feel we have to hire those who share those values.” I’m sure that many people felt that their “values” or “identity” were being disturbed when the 19th amendment was passed, or when President Truman desegregated the military, or when President Eisenhower ordered the Arkansas National Guard to allow the Little Rock Nine into Little Rock Central High School, but now we look back and realize that those moments were ones that made us a better, more equal nation. They were tough decisions, but necessary ones. Of all people, President Obama should recognize this. To Richard Stearns: In the unlikely chance you read this, stop using my tax money to promote discriminatory practices because it is rather un-Christian, and extremely un-American.

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