Obama urged to change faith-based hiring rules

June 22, 2011

A group of clergy and lawmakers is trying to overturn a nearly
decade-old policy that allows faith-based organizations that receive
federal funds to hire and fire employees on the basis of religion.

Critics
say President Obama has reneged on a campaign promise to repeal the
policy, which was put into place by President Bush in 2002.

"It is
shocking that we would even be having a debate about whether basic
civil rights practices should apply to programs run with federal
dollars," said Rep. Bobby Scott (D., Va.). "There is just no
justification for sponsors of government-funded programs to tell job
applicants, 'We don't hire your kind.'"

Scott has sponsored
legislation to repeal the policy. But advocates for the change say the
most effective route would be for Obama to issue an executive order to
overturn Bush's, Scott told reporters on June 21.

Bush introduced
the policy to advance what he deemed a more faith-friendly federal
approach toward charitable organizations that receive federal contracts
for social services. Previously, groups that received government money
were forbidden to consider religion in their employment decisions.

Bush,
however, argued that while an organization accepting federal support
could not refuse to help people based on their religion, it should be
able to take religion into account when hiring and firing employees.
Many religious organizations—particularly conservative ones—hailed the
overall initiative and continue to support it.

"We will do
whatever we can to make sure this stays," said Michele Combs,
spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition, saying charitable organizations
should have the right to employ those who share their groups' values.
"That's our freedom," she said, "to hire and fire people of our faith."

More
liberal religious leaders, who typically toe a strict line on
church-state separation, said the lingering Bush order undermines a
century of progress in civil rights.

"Tax dollars should not be
used to discriminate," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Congressman Scott and
others re­ferred to a speech Obama gave on the campaign trail four
months before his 2008 election in which he promised to reform Bush's
faith-based program.

Obama said a group receiving federal money
shouldn't be able to "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."

Asked for comment June
22, a White House spokesperson said: "The Justice Department continues
to examine this issue on a case-by-case basis."  —RNS