Faith-Based Favoritism

U.S. House Supports Rollback Of Religious Discrimination Ban In Job-Training Bill After Bush Push

To U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern the issue is simple.

 “Faith-based institutions,” he told fellow House members, “should be required, like all other recipients of federal funds, to adhere to basic civil rights laws, and I cannot even begin to count the number of institutions that have contacted my office in the last few days asking to be held to those same standards.”

The Massachusetts Democrat implored his colleagues to think about their actions as they debated a job-training bill that carved out a loophole in civil rights protections for workers at publicly funded religious agencies.

“How can anyone justify abandoning one of our nation’s most fundamental principles?” McGovern asked. “How can members believe this is the right position to advocate? I certainly cannot find it in myself to do so. This provision is offensive. It is ugly, it is wrong, it is unacceptable. But beyond that, Mr. Speaker, I believe it is unconstitutional and un-American.”

But McGovern’s impassioned appeal went unheeded. After a lengthy, at times heated, debate on the House floor March 2, the Republican-controlled chamber handed a victory to the Bush administration for its controversial “faith-based” initiative.

The contentiousness in Congress centered on language rolling back civil rights protections for workers in federally funded programs run by churches and other religious groups. A provision in the Job Training Improvement Act (H.R. 27) allows publicly funded religious agencies to hire and fire workers based on their religious beliefs.

Republican leaders in Congress were under increasingly heavy pressure from a White House stung by complaints that President George W. Bush is not pushing hard enough for the faith-based plan. Thus the early March vote scored a victory for the president.

Indeed, the day before the House vote, Bush told a gathering of religious leaders at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington that Congress must act. Faith-based organizations, he said, “need a guarantee they will not be forced to give up their right to hire people of their own faith as the price of competing for federal money.”

But veteran advocates of civil rights and civil liberties strongly disagree.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) urged the members to stand by a decades-old policy of prohibiting employment discrimination in federally funded programs. He introduced an amendment to the jobs bill to restore civil rights protections.

“In 1941, President Roosevelt ordered a prohibition against discrimination in all defense contracts,” Scott said. “In other words, since 1941, our national policy has been that even if you can build better and cheaper rifles, the Army will not buy them from you if you discriminate in employment.”

Urging passage of Scott’s amendment, McGovern reminded lawmakers that when the first national job-training program was created, it was done with the backing of then-Senator Dan Quayle and President Ronald Reagan, who signed it into law. Today’s bill, however, “shreds” those civil rights protections, he said.

“In other words,” McGovern said “this bill would allow a religious organization that discriminates based on religion, like a Bob Jones University, to get taxpayer money and use that federal funding to legally discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff to carry out the job-training programs and services in this bill.”

Both McGovern and Scott cited support for the civil rights protections from a wide range of religious, civil liberties and labor organizations. Americans United for Separation of Church and State had sent a Feb. 17 letter to Congress urging representatives to support Scott’s amendment.

Americans United helped coordinate a diverse coalition of groups to contact the House about the measure. In late February, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, which includes some three dozen organizations, also sent a letter to representatives urging them “to protect workers against religious discrimination in federally funded training programs.”

Signers ranged from the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to the Baptist Joint Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Episcopal Church.

But civil rights and civil liberties arguments fell on deaf ears in a House where the majority owes its allegiance to the White House and its Religious Right allies. Scott’s amendment to restore civil rights protections to the job-training bill was defeated on a 239-186 vote that fell largely along party lines.

The Bush administration was particularly intent on moving the faith-based initiative forward in Con­gress because of sharp criticism from a former top-level operative in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Ini­ti­a­tives. In a February essay posted on Belief­net.com, David Kuo argued that top Bush administration officials had sidelined the initiative.

Kuo, the former deputy director of the White House faith-based office, blasted the White House for failing to live up to Bush’s promises. While professing his “deep respect, appreciation, and affection for the president,” Kuo charged that the president had failed to spend political capital on so-called “compassionate conservatism.”

Charging that there was “minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda,” Kuo observed, “No administration since LBJ’s has had a more successful legislative track record than this one. From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the ‘poor people stuff.’”

Kuo’s Beliefnet.com article paints a picture of an administration mostly interested in using the faith-based initiative to tap into wells of voters typically cold to politicians pushing socially conservative agendas. He suggests that evangelical politicos, such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, liked Bush’s “faith-based” rhetoric, but didn’t care whether the initiative was fully funded.

“The Faith-Based Office was the cross around the White House’s neck showing the president’s own faith orientation,” charged Kuo. “That was sufficient.”

As reported on before by Church & State (see “Faith-Based Flim-Flam,” Oct. 2002) and in Kuo’s article, the White House, as well as other-like minded political groups, discovered that just trumpeting the social service works of religious groups or awarding a few small government grants to African-American religious leaders appeared to be enough to reap political benefits.

Kuo wrote that between 2002 and 2004 “more than 15,000 white, Hispanic and African-American religious and social service leaders attended free White House conferences on how to interact with the federal government. The meetings, held regularly in battleground states, were chock-full of vital information and gave thousands of groups invaluable information about government grants. They were hardly pep rallies for the president. But the conferences sent a resounding political message to all faith-oriented constituencies: President Bush cares about you.”

Bush, according to polling, did increase his share of the vote among religious African-Ameri­can and Latino voters in 2004. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Bush’s biggest gain came among Latino Protestants, and more black Protestants and Catholics supported Bush than in 2000.

One recent event openly confirms the partisan political character of the faith-based initiative.

In February, a couple of senators from Pennsylvania, one of whom may face a grueling re-election campaign, drew attention for their comments during their announcement of a faith-based grant to a black clergy group.

“In a gesture as much political as beneficial to the community,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Feb. 23 that Republican Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum announced a $4-million federal grant award for the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity to operate a job-training program. During the press briefing to announce the award, Specter lavished praise on Santorum, who is up for re-election next year, and urged the gathering of African-American religious leaders to support both their political ambitions.

Specter told the gathering that the two “went to the wall” to secure the federal grant, and that “we’re prepared to go to the wall again and again and again. But if we’re going to the wall, you’ve got to see that we’re in office.”

Referring to Santorum as “President Bush’s No. 1 lieutenant,” Specter, who won a reelection victory in 2004, told the religious leaders that they needed “to have somebody like Rick Santorum” in Washington.

The senators’ announcement drew a critical editorial from the Philadelphia Daily News, arguing that their actions seemingly backed up the accusations of partisan intent in the faith-based initiative.

“With relatively little money,” the newspaper said, “the administration has tempted churches with the possibility of federal funding for their programs, winning for them, if not votes, then at least neutrality.”

The president’s renewed “faith-based” push – despite its recent success in the House – may still falter.

Bush noted during his speech to the religious leaders at the Omni Hotel in Washington that he has had to rely on executive orders to funnel more federal grants to religious groups and that he remained wary of the initiative’s lack of success in Congress. The president is well aware that executive orders are much easier to reverse than law.

Noting that it was one of his top priorities to prod Congress into passing faith-based legislation, Bush told the gathering that his executive orders “ought to be codified into federal law, and Congress needs to act this year to do so.”

According to the president, such legislation “guarantees in law that faith-based organizations are treated equally when they compete for federal dollars, and it also protects their religious independence in hiring workers.” He continued that he has supported “faith-based” legislation “every year, and every year it’s got stuck. There’s kind of a consistent pattern there.”

Americans United Director of Legislative Affairs Aaron Schuham believes that the president’s “faith-based” agenda is likely to again find stern resistance in the Senate, due to lawmakers’ concerns about civil rights and civil liberties.

“We are optimistic that the job-training bill will be fixed once it is considered in the Senate,” Schuham said. “Americans United and our allies are dedicated to blocking the administration’s efforts to undercut church-state separation and enshrine employment discrimination in law.”

Indeed, some Religious Right groups have not shied from arguing that faith-based law is needed to allow publicly funded religious providers to discriminate in hiring.

On the day before the House vote on the job-training bill, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins issued an e-mail alert regarding House members who would “attack” the measure’s protections for “faith-based” groups.

Citing Bush’s speech at the Omni Hotel, Perkins wrote that, “The President made clear though that if these protections are not codified into law, the dangers of bias against the faith-based can return in future administrations. Specifically, organizations that oppose homosexuality and abortion often need extra protection when receiving federal aid or using federal facilities.”

That sent a clear message that some conservative religious groups want to discriminate in hiring not only on denominational grounds, but also against gays and supporters of reproductive rights.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said it is obvious that many Religious Right groups are calling for government support of their agendas, while demanding that they be allowed to discriminate in hiring.

“Most of the beneficiaries of this money are people with attitudes like Pat Robertson, who are supporters of the president and supporters of the president’s issues, like his position on same-sex marriage,” Lynn told Gay.com, a national Internet media service. “This money is going to friends of the president and enemies of equality. I think the Senate is going to hold firm to maintain civil rights and protections.”