House Bill Exempting Religious Organizations From Federal Funds Underway

( [email protected] ) Jun 26, 2003 01:23 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- A House Bill exempting religious organizations from federal non-discrimination hiring policies passed the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, June 18. While many groups uphold the bill as a step towards preventing government discrimination against religious groups, others criticize it would do the opposite.

H.R. 2210, "The School Readiness Act of 2003," should it pass through the full House, would provide certain groups exemptions from the federal non-discrimination hiring policies established since 1981. Included in the list is the “Head Start” group – a taxpayer-funded program that serves 900,000 pre school children from disadvantaged families nationwide. Although Head Start is intended to be free of religion, some local Head Start programs take place in “houses of worship” or are operated by local church groups.

Groups such as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), oppose the bill, saying such legislation would endanger the jobs of 50,000 teachers. The two groups expressed particular concern over the effects the bill may take on the Head Start program; on June 17, AU and CARD sent a letter to members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee contending that some 870,000 parents who volunteer for Head Start might also be prevented from participating.

"There is no need to allow Head Start providers to restrict the hiring on the basis of religion because it's not a religious program," said Rob Boston, spokesman for AU.

Michael McGrady, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, agreed with Boston, expressing concern that the bill, proposed by Mike Castle (R-Del.), would impose limits on Head Start and convert it into a program that discriminates.

"There will be teachers in the Head Start program who will be terminated because they are 'not the right religion,'" McGrady said. "This will not only be detrimental to the teacher and the community, but the Head Start children as well because it sends a message to the children that if they're not of the same religion, there is no place for them in this community.

"That makes no sense," Boston said. "It's sort of like saying that public schools could restrict their hiring on the basis of religion, and there's no reason for that. There is no religious component in public education, and there isn't in Head Start, either."

"It's a pretty popular program, and there are more people in it than can be served," Boston continued. "We ought to be looking at ways to expand the program and get more people involved, and not put in place policies that might drive some people out."

However, David Barton, president of the conservative group Wallbuilders, said the bill is actually a step toward preventing government discrimination of religious groups.

According to Barton, the bill would allow faith-based institutions the chance to shape the character of their local programs through their hiring. He added that the legislation is consistent with other rights enjoyed by Americans.

"We have the right of association and to choose who we want around us, in our operations and functions," Barton said.

Parker Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee, denied that the bill in question contained anything new or illegal. The idea for faith-based hiring at Head Start is basically an extension of previous legislative ventures and is in line with previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Hamilton said.

Hamilton pointed to other cases of Faith Based hiring that were upheld by the High Court, including the 1988 Bowen v. Kendrick case. Hamilton also noted

Other cases of “Faith-based hiring” that were upheld for that President Bill Clinton signed four different federal laws allowing faith-based organizations the right to hire staff on a religious basis - the Welfare Reform Act, the Community Services Block Grant Act, the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"Many of these faith-based groups decide to participate in the organization because of their religion," she said. "We think they ought to have the right to hire the people they choose," Hamilton said.

"There are already standards in place," Hamilton said. "I don't see how changing the hiring practices would affect that.”