Good Question, Not-So-Good Answer: Obama’s Muddled Response On ‘Faith-Based’ Job Bias

No faith-based organization is required to accept tax money. Those that choose to do so must first agree to abide by a few common-sense rules, including giving up their right to discriminate.

With all of the talk about the U.S. debt ceiling, it’s sometimes easy to forget that other issues are out there. Even as he attempts to strike a deal to keep America solvent, President Barack Obama continues to address other topics.

Last week, Obama appeared before at crowd at the University of Maryland for a town hall meeting. There were questions about the debt crisis, but the very first query Obama got was something different. Amanda Knief, government relations manager for the Secular Coalition for America, decided to ask Obama a question about the faith-based initiative.

I’m an atheist,” Knief said. “And in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2008, you asserted that no organization receiving taxpayer funds would be able to discriminate in hiring or firing based on a person’s religion. However, you have not rescinded the executive order that permits that type of discrimination. In a time of economic hardship, when it is difficult for a person to get a job based on her skills, what would you say to a woman who has been denied employment because of her religion, or lack of religious beliefs, by taxpayer-funded organizations?”

Good question.

“Well, this is a very difficult issue, but a more narrow one than I think might be implied,” Obama said. “It’s very straightforward that people shouldn't be discriminated against for race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. 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,” Obama continued. “On the one hand, the First Amendment ensures that there is 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’s providing certain services they consider part of their mission, to be promoting their religious views, but they may have a daycare center associated with the organization, or they may be running a food pantry.”

Obama went on to say, “I think we’ve struck the right balance so far, but this is something we continue to be in dialogue with faith-based organizations about to try to make sure that their hiring practices are as open and inclusive as possible.” (You can see the full exchange here.)

Knief wasn’t satisfied, telling reporters that Obama “didn’t address the most egregious aspect of this policy: that religious discrimination is occurring on the taxpayer’s dime. 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.” (Full disclosure: I know Amanda and serve as an advisor to the Secular Coalition.)

I understand why Amanda was disappointed with Obama’s answer. The fact is, no one disputes the right of religious groups to discriminate in their purely religious functions. Those functions, being religious, aren’t tax funded. The problem is, some religious groups are taking tax money to run social service programs that are designed to serve the public (soup kitchens, homeless shelters, employment agencies, drug and alcohol programs, etc.) yet still insist on the right to hire and fire based on religion. Why they need to do that is a mystery. These programs, being tax funded, cannot legally promote religion.

This issue is not nearly as “tricky” as the president would imply. No faith-based organization is required to accept tax money. Those that choose to do so must first agree to abide by a few common-sense rules, including giving up their right to discriminate. Religious groups that believe discrimination is paramount can refrain from taking part in government-run programs.

Everybody wins.

The good news is that more organizations are paying attention to this issue. In fact, Equality Matters has a great story about it today featuring some choice quotes by Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. Obama may wish this issue would go away, but it’s not.

Obama had it right in 2008 when he spoke in Zanesville. I wish he would find his way back to that sensible position, and I’m glad Amanda decided to press him on it.