Obama Muffs Question On Faith-Based Hiring Discrimination

UPDATES BELOW.

“I’m an atheist,” began Amanda Knief, Government Relations Manager for the Secular Coalition for America, directing a question to President Obama at his townhall today at the University of Maryland, about why he hasn’t rescinded the Bush-era executive order permitting taxpayer-funded organizations to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

I’ve written about this issue for three years; I know that the the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, of which SCA is a part, is intensely frustrated that Obama has refused to budge on it. Here’s what I wrote just last month, after CARD once again called on Obama to reverse the Bush rule:

Today the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) is calling on Obama to honor this week’s anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination by military contractors, by finally putting an end to a Bush-era executive order that permits religious organizations receiving federal grants to discriminate in hiring based on religion. Fifty-two civil liberties, faith, and other organizations signed on to CARD’s letter to the president. . . . members of Congress and of CARD plan to call “for President Obama to restore religious liberty protections in employment law” after President George W. Bush rolled those protections back via executive order in 2002.

I have written about this many times, but I will write it again: Obama promised on the campaign trail in a July 2008 speech in Zanesville, Ohio, to end religious discrimination by recipients of federal faith-based money. After that speech, the campaign got pushback from evangelical leaders, who insisted that they wouldn’t even want federal money if they couldn’t engage in what they call “co-religionist hiring,” that is, the ability to only hire applicants of the same faith, or to refuse employment to someone, like, say, a Muslim or a lesbian. Once in office, Obama backtracked and didn’t reverse the Bush executive order, putting CARD (which includes a number of faith and civil liberties organizations) on a three-year quest to get him to honor his campaign promise.

For several reasons, Obama got his answer to Knief wrong. Here’s what he said:

This is a very difficult issue, but a more narrow one that I think might be implied. It’s very straightforward that people shouldn’t be discriminated against. . . . what has happened is that there has been a carve-out dating back to President Clinton’s presidency for religious organizations in their hiring for particular purposes. This is always a tricky part of the First Amendment. On the one hand, the First Amendment ensures that there’s freedom of religion. On the other hand, we want to make sure that religious bodies are abiding by general laws. Where this issue has come up is in fairly narrow circumstances where, for example, you’ve got a faith-based organization that is providing certain services, they consider part of their mission to be promoting their religious views, but they may have a day care center associated with the organization, or they may be running a food pantry, so then the question is does a Jewish organization have to hire a non-Jewish person as part of that organization? Now, I think that the balance we tried to strike is to say that if you have set up a non-profit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, you have to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices. On the other hand, if it’s closer to your core functions . . . then you might have more leeway to hire someone who is of that religious faith. . . I think we’ve struck the right balance so far.

First, this is not a difficult issue. Privately funded religious organizations can legally discriminate in hiring based on religion, but before Bush issued his executive order, those receiving federal funding could not. Obama the constitutional lawyer campaigning for president understood that. Obama the president, anxious to satisfy certain supporters of his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships who want to retain discriminatory hiring by religious organizations receiving federal funds, changed his mind.

In the latter part of his answer, Obama conflated the issue of direct funding with the hiring question. The hiring question is separate, and easily resolved by rescinding the Bush executive order. The direct funding question is a different one, and stems from the question of whether the government should directly fund a house of worship, or whether the house of worship should be required to set up a separate non-profit to receive federal funds. Under Obama’s OFBNP, they’re encouraged, but not required, to do so.

Obama’s right that under civil rights laws generally, a religious organization that is completely privately funded must show any religious discrimination in hiring is related to its core religious function (i.e., you can’t refuse to hire a non-co-religious janitor, but you can refuse to hire a non-co-religionist clergy). But that’s not the question here. The question here is whether any organization that receives taxpayer dollars can discriminate in hiring based on religion. And that was the question Obama didn’t answer.

So when Obama says the Jewish food pantry, for example, has “to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices,” he’s dodging the real question: why he won’t rescind the Bush rule, and prohibit any organization that receives federal funding from discriminating based on religion in hiring. An organization like World Vision, for example, is not a church but a 501(c)(3); it receives federal funding. Its president, Richard Strearns (who also served on the first Advisory Council to Obama’s faith-based office) has long argued that his and other organizations should be able to discriminate against employees, and it has fired employees who denied the “deity of Jesus Christ” and “the doctrine of the Trinity.” Last year, World Vision received over $100 million in federal dollars.

“Unfortunately, the president didn’t address the most egregious aspect of this policy – that religious discrimination is occurring on the taxpayer’s dime,” Knief said later. “Discrimination is wrong in all forms, especially when it is being funded by taxpayers. I would urge the president to reconsider the statements he made today, and stick to his campaign promise of 2008 by signing an executive order barring any taxpayer funding of religious organizations that discriminate on the basis of belief.”

UPDATE: The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a CARD member, weighs in with a scathing statement:

Frankly, the President’s response that he has “struck the right balance so far” on this issue is misguided and untrue. There is no such thing as balance when it comes to discrimination supported by government funding. As I have said on numerous occasions, religious groups have every right to employ only those individuals who are committed to their religion and values—but if taxpayers are funding the organization, it should reflect our nation’s historic commitment to civil rights or exist without government money. President Obama’s comments today, taken as a whole, do not provide any encouragement that progress will be made in this area any time soon.

SCA has the video:

 

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email