Justice Department Oks Religious Bias In ‘Faith-Based’ Programs

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has advised religious groups that they may accept tax dollars and still discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff.

In October, the Justice Department posted a notice on its Web site asserting that a 14-year-old law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the right of houses of worship to limit hiring to members of their own faith even when accepting funds through the Bush administration’s so-called “faith-based” initiative.

The controversial interpretation of the law is sure to escalate the ongoing debate over religious bias in tax-funded programs. Organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State assert that while religious groups have the right to discriminate in privately funded endeavors, they give that up when they take tax aid.

The move is seen as significant because other federal agencies are likely to follow the Justice Department’s lead.

The Justice Department has already applied the new rules to one evangelical Christian group. Carl H. Esbeck, a supporter of faith-based initiatives, wrote a column for The Hill newspaper Oct. 30, reporting that the DOJ has agreed to let World Vision, an evangelical relief agency, hire and fire based on religion while spending $1.5 million in federal anti-gang funds.

Esbeck reports that the DOJ money comes through the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and is subject to the explicit non-discrimination provisions of the Safe Streets Act. But administration officials are apparently ignoring that language.

Esbeck, now a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, goes on to argue that discrimination on the basis of religion is somehow less offensive than that based on race.

“While the Constitution ascribes no value to racial discrimination, discrimination on the basis of religion is often protected as a matter of free exercise,” he insists.

The move could set up a fight with the Democrat-led Congress. Congress specifically mandated that all grant recipients must abide by nondiscrimination provisions, including religious nondiscrimination, when hiring staff for these programs.

World Vision’s qualifications for employment are quite specific. The faith-based group’s Web site says employees must subscribe to The Apostles’ Creed and a Statement of Faith. Job applicants have to profess that “the Bible is the inspired, the only infallible authoritative Word of God,” and that “there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

They would also have to believe in “the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.”