WASHINGTON – The White House announced the publication of a document that lays out the administration’s intention to ensure the rights of religious organizations according to their faith, June 24. The text, dubbed, “Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations: Why Religious Hiring Rights Must Be Preserved," is expected to open doors to congressional opposition on the basis that the policy would “roll back the clock” on civil rights.
"President Bush believes that -- regardless of whether government funds are involved -- faith-based groups should retain their fundamental civil rights, including their Title VII right to take their faith into account when they make employment decisions," the document says.
Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told reporters in a conference call that Bush believes this is necessary for such religious organizations to be effective in their mission
"President Bush has said from the beginning that the faith-based initiative is about results. He believes that America is served best when the most qualified providers are eligible to compete" for social-service contracts without having to meet the government's non-discrimination standards in hiring, Towey said.
Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave religious organizations the right to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. However, the current issue is convoluted because the targeted organizations would be receiving public funding.
In 1996 Congress passed, and then-President Bill Clinton signed, federal "welfare reform" legislation that allowed the provision of federal social-service funds to heavily religious agencies. The bill allowed those agencies to retain their religious restrictions in hiring.
According to Towey however, the differences between those so-called "charitable-choice" programs and other federal programs means a hodge-podge of differing standards on hiring discrimination depending on which federal program a faith-based organization was applying to for funds
"Some groups have been deterred from providing services because of this thicket in the law…and the poor are the losers in this situation," Towey said.
Since Bush took office, the White House has repeatedly attempted to expand the government's ability to fund social services through deeply religious providers. Bush signed an executive order Dec. 12 that instructed government agencies to give "equal treatment" to faith-based providers in granting social-service contracts, and explicitly allowed those contractors to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.
However, congress rejected many of the policies, mainly because of the controversial nature of the employment-discrimination issue.
Bush attempted to do an end-run around Congress by enacting much of his faith-based initiative by administrative fiat last winter.
However, executive orders can always be overturned by future presidents, and do not supersede congressional legislation that explicitly outlaws religious discrimination for providers using funds from certain federal programs. Bush's congressional allies have made several recent attempts to remove the non-discrimination clauses from legislation reauthorizing individual federal social-service programs, such as Head Start.
On June 25 -- the 62nd anniversary of Roosevelt's executive order -- Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) announced he was introducing a bill in the House to repeal the portion of Bush's executive order that allowed religious discrimination with federal dollars.
"This rollback on civil-rights protections is unwarranted and unnecessary," Scott said in a press conference announcing the bill. "Many faith-based organizations have sponsored federal programs for decades without discriminating with federal dollars," he added, alluding to religious social-service providers such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services that have long received federal funding while complying with federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
Towey repeatedly argued that such concerns about discrimination are unwarranted. "I defy anyone to show a trend of problems since welfare-to-work was passed in 1996 on the religious-hiring, charitable-choice question. But the fact is there is no record of it," Towey said in the June 24 conference.
Scott interjected, saying such problems are not apparent because even though Clinton signed the legislation authorizing "charitable choice," his administration did not enforce the practice of giving federal funds to deeply religious groups that qualified for civil-rights exceptions.
"When President Clinton signed these bills, he said his interpretation denied funding of pervasively sectarian organizations," Scott said.
"The more you discuss it, the more the idea of employment discrimination starts smelling," he said.