Episcopal Leader Says Faith-Based Hiring Bias Makes Her ‘Twitch’

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is no fan of the “faith-based” initiative.

“The idea that faith-based groups should have special entree to government funding just makes me twitch,” said Jefferts Schori during a December speech in Washington, D.C. “It makes me twitch when groups funded with public funds will only hire their own members, or use the funds to advance sectarian” views.

Jefferts Schori also said she hopes the administration of President Barack Obama “is asking questions” about whether to continue the initiative, Religion News Service reported.

As head of the 2.2-million-member denomination, Jefferts Schori made the remarks after a speech titled “Religion in the Public Square” at the National Press Club.

The initiative was President George W. Bush’s first domestic-policy proposal. Although it was never approved by Congress, the faith-based initiative managed to grow during the eight years of the Bush presidency, largely due to executive orders and regulatory changes Bush instituted.

Bush continued making these changes right up until he left office. In the final days of his term, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor prepared new guidelines to help religious organizations receive public funding while continuing to discriminate in hiring.

The guidelines were based in part on a legal opinion issued by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2007, which came to light last October. The memo asserted that “faith-based” social service agencies can receive government funds and still discriminate in hiring on religious grounds even if Congress specifically banned such bias in the program.

The opinion was issued after a $1.5 million DOJ grant was approved for World Vision, an evangelical Christian agency that hires “only candidates who agree with World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or the Apostles’ Creed.”

In support of giving tax funds to a group that discriminates like this, DOJ officials argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law passed in 1993, trumps federal anti-discrimination provisions.

Bush’s new guidelines lay out for religious groups how to successfully receive an exemption from hiring restrictions and still receive public funds through Labor and Health and Human Services. As the DOJ opinion suggests, the exemptions will be offered on a case-by-case basis to any religious organization that believes its religious character would be “substantially burdened” if it doesn’t get to hire people of similar faith.

Americans United has urged Obama to overturn Bush executive orders relating to the faith-based initiative.