Tennessee Governor Should Veto 'faith-based' Bill, Says Watchdog Group

Law Would Allow Publicly Funded Religious Groups To Discriminate In Hiring, Says Americans United

The Tennessee legislature has sent the governor a "faith-based" bill that raises serious constitutional and civil rights concerns, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United urged Gov. Phil Bredesen in a May 26 letter to veto the bill, SB2594. Modeled after the Bush administration's regulations to allow for more government funding of religiously run social services, the Tennessee measure would allow religious groups to operate an array of state services in pervasively sectarian settings.

The bill also states that government agencies cannot deny grants to religious groups that discriminate in hiring staff to operate their social service programs. A fundamentalist church, for example, could obtain a state grant to offer job-training services yet turn away Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants and others qualified to offer those services.

"This bill is a blatant effort to merge government with religion," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "There is no need to violate the First Amendment in order to help the state's needy. The governor should quickly reject the legislature's poorly devised bill."

In the four-page letter to Bredesen, Lynn notes that government agencies have in the past contracted with religiously based social service providers without flouting constitutional principles.

"For decades, there has been an effective relationship between government and religiously affiliated institutions for the provision of community-based social services," Lynn wrote. "These partnerships have allowed religiously affiliated organizations to provide invaluable social services in communities throughout the nation while maintaining critical safeguards."

The Tennessee bill, however, states that religious groups can obtain state grants to provide social services even if they discriminate based on religious grounds in hiring staff to provide those services, the letter notes. Furthermore, the bill states that government officials "shall not require a religious organization to alter its form of internal governance or to remove religious art, icons, scripture or other symbols in order to be eligible" for the state grants.

Additionally the bill fails to provide alternative programs for recipients not interested in government help intertwined with religious trappings, Lynn said. The bill merely states that a recipient who objects to the religious nature of the assistance program will be given an alternative provider, if one is available.

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.

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.