Biased Bunch: Religious Right Wants 'Faith-Based' Hiring and Firing Along With Federal Funds

For many members of the Religious Right, Barack Obama's proposal to expand "faith-based" initiatives was "dead on arrival," the Associated Press reported yesterday.

Though Obama announced a plan to increase spending on faith-based social services, starting with a $500 million-a-year program, top religious conservatives seem more than disappointed.

You would think they would be happy. After all, Obama is showing support for the services these organizations have provided to the poor and disadvantaged and wants to keep them funded.

The only clincher is Obama has made it clear that his program will not permit discrimination in hiring by faith-based organizations that get government funding. That's the opposite of President George W. Bush's initiative, which allows religiously based job bias in publicly funded programs.

But why should publicly paid employees' beliefs about religion matter? These organizations agree not to proselytize when performing charitable services for the government, so whether staff performing these services includes people of other faiths (or no faith) makes no difference, right?

You would think so, but apparently, the Religious Right begs to differ.

Jim Towey, a former director of Bush's faith office who is now the president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., told the McClatchy News Service that the hiring mandates would "frustrate" many organizations.

"The reality is an Orthodox Jewish group ceases to be Orthodox if they have to hire atheists or Southern Baptists," Towey said. "What Senator Obama is saying is groups will have to secularize if they play ball with government and receive federal funding, and that flies in the face of what many small groups want."

Towey expanded on his comments in the AP story, claiming Obama's plan was "unmanageable -- and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission."

I don't see why hiring bias is necessary, unless these organizations were in fact illegally proselytizing under Bush's plan. Otherwise, what difference would it make if the staff members working in soup kitchens or homeless shelters were of the same religion? The "vision and mission" is all the same -- to feed the hungry and house the homeless.

Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations told the Religion News Service: "A faith-based charity should not have to forsake its religious liberty or dilute its religious character to obtain a federal grant."

If an organization wants to maintain its religious character, then use private funds, not government funds. Sorry, but if a group wants to preach and proselytize, it cannot expect forced contributions from American taxpayers. That's basic church-state separation.

Richard Land, chief lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, told The New York Times: "If you can't hire people within your faith community, then you've lost the distinctive that is the reason why faith-based programs exist in the first place."

I thought the faith-based programs that receive federal funding exist to do good works and, as President Bush put it last week at his faith-based conference, to "put hope in a person's heart."

I didn't think it takes religious discrimination in hiring to accomplish that goal.