Allowable Discrimination?

On the campaign trail this past summer in Zanesville, Ohio, President Obama committed his administration to extending the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships while maintaining the appropriate boundaries between church and state. Part of this boundary, he then asserted, involved undoing President Bush’s policy that allowed religious organizations funded by the federal government to discriminate in hiring. President Obama was adamant that the federal government could not subsidize discrimination.

But yesterday when the president announced the revamped office and introduced his ideologically diverse advisory council, he failed to repeal his predecessor’s unjust executive order. There are reports that President Obama will order the Justice Department and the new advisory board to wrestle with the constitutional implications of this policy of allowable discrimination. To many this is somewhat surprising and disheartening. There are few with the “constitutional law bona-fides” of the president, a former law professor at the University of Chicago. And he has made it clear in the past that if you get a federal grant, it is unconstitutional to discriminate against the folks you serve or the people you employ.

Let’s hope this is just a political ploy insofar as the president would rather do away with this discriminatory allowance behind closed doors rather than announcing it at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast. Because appropriating tax dollars to bigoted faith groups is hardly, “Change We Can Believe In.”

jonathan.walton@mac.com'

Jonathan L. Walton is assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School. His lastest book is: Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Religious Broadcasting (New York University Press).