Congressional leaders are trying to force a bill through Congress that would permit religious discrimination in staffing of Head Start and jeopardize the positions of thousands of teachers and parent volunteers.
The popular tax-funded program is designed to provide academic instruction and health-care services for three- and four-year-olds, giving them a "head start" before they begin kindergarten. Although Head Start is not a religious program, it is sometimes run by church groups in church facilities.
Current law bans hiring on the basis of religion in Head Start programs. House leaders, acting at the behest of the Bush administration, want to drop that provision. As part of its "faith-based" initiative, the White House is asking that all federal social service rules be changed to allow religious groups to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds while using public funds.
"This is outrageous," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Head Start is not a religious program, and there is absolutely no reason for this change. Thousands of teachers will have their jobs placed in jeopardy by this proposal, and tens of thousands of children could have their lives disrupted."
If the new rule is adopted, thousands of Head Start instructors across the country could be fired for being the "wrong" religion. AU also notes that nationwide, nearly 1 million parents serve as Head Start volunteers. Under the new policy, any of them could be removed from the classroom on the basis of their religious beliefs and in some cases could even be taken out of classrooms where their own children are receiving services.
Aware that Head Start is a popular program, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other Religious Right allies are trying to ram the legislation, titled "The School Readiness Act of 2003," through Congress before public opposition is mobilized. The bill, H.R. 2210, is scheduled for mark-up tomorrow in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, with a vote on the House floor planned for next week.
Lynn said Head Start teachers, who generally make lower salaries than kindergarten instructors, should be judged solely on their qualifications and abilities as educators; their religious beliefs should not be relevant.
"Congress seems more interested in pushing the Bush 'faith-based' agenda than helping disadvantaged children," Lynn said. "Americans concerned about fundamental issues of fairness in public programs had better speak out now."
Americans United is working with The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, a collection of groups that oppose religious discrimination in "faith-based" programs, to block the proposed changes. On June 17, the Coalition sent a letter opposing the new rules to every member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.