After much contentious debate and strong opposition from gay rights advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives early Friday narrowly approved a retooling of the federal Head Start preschool program. The new version of the program shifts control to some states and allows religious centers to hire people based on their faith, a move decried by many as taxpayer-funded discrimination. The bill was passed by one vote despite Democratic efforts to remove the discriminatory wording. "It's in these circumstances that even pro-gay Republicans cave under party pressure," said Dave Noble, executive director for the National Stonewall Democrats. "They can try to dismiss their actions as just another procedural vote, but in reality these votes usually result in a long-lasting, negative impact on our community."
Under current law, religious groups are eligible to receive federal funding to operate Head Start programs as long as they do not discriminate on the basis of religion, according to NSD. The new resolution removes that provision, potentially opening the door to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. During final negotiations, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) offered an amendment on the House floor that would have removed the discriminatory language from the bill, but her amendment was denied in an almost exclusively party-line vote.
The final 217-216 vote, reached just before 1 a.m. Friday morning, also capped a debate in which Democrats accused Republicans of dismantling a program that has provided nutritional, social, emotional, and literacy help to more than 20 million needy children since 1965. The bill would allow up to eight states to manage Head Start so they could coordinate the program--and merge its money--with other childhood education efforts. The new state flexibility--endorsed by the Bush administration, which wanted to expand it to all 50 states--drew intense opposition from Democrats and social welfare groups. The resolution now heads to the Senate.