Although it didn’t generate a lot of headlines, a vote in the U.S. Senate June 19 marked an important victory for Americans United and our allies.
By unanimous consent, the Senate voted to reauthorize Head Start, a popular program that serves low-income children and their families. What’s significant about the vote is something the bill did not contain: taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.
For the past seven years, nearly every time a social-service bill came up for reauthorization in Congress, Americans United could count on Religious Right groups and the Bush administration insisting that a “faith-based” component be added.
They would insist that not only should religious groups get public funding, they should be permitted to screen staff on the basis of religious beliefs or lifestyle issues.
No one disputes the right of religious groups to restrict hiring to members of their own faith in privately funded programs that serve a private religious interest. But that’s not what Head Start and these other programs are. They are public programs, serving a wide range of people from different religious and philosophical backgrounds.
The claim that there is a “right” to subject paid staff and even volunteers to a type of faith-based inquisition is especially galling in the case of Head Start. Houses of worship sometimes host Head Start affiliates, but they are not religious programs. Head Start programs contain no religious content and must serve people regardless of where or if they attend religious services.
Had a faith-based amendment passed, a Head Start program operating in the social hall of a Baptist church could have summarily fired all of the Jewish, Catholic and humanist staffers. The program could have told parent volunteers to hit the bricks for being the “wrong” religion. It could have replaced experienced teachers with new people for no other reason than religious affiliation.
This would have been bad for children – and it would have been an affront to our shared civic and constitutional values.
When Head Start came up for reauthorization, Religious Right allies in the House of Representatives tried to amend the bill to allow for religious discrimination. They failed in a House committee. When the bill reached the full House, they tried again and failed.
They tried in the Senate too. There, some senators were so mad they actually delayed the bill’s passage for several days.
Americans United Director of Legislative Affairs Aaron Schuham and his entire department have worked tirelessly to prevent “faith-based” bias in Head Start and other publicly funded programs. We congratulate them on this victory, and we thank all the Americans United members and allies who have contacted their members of Congress on this topic.
The Head Start bill has passed, free from taxpayer-supported religious discrimination. We can only hope that this vote signals a new approach in Congress and that tolerance for taxpayer-funded religious discrimination is over.