Bush says religious groups should be allowed to discriminate

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com June 25 2003 11:00 PM ET

President Bush sent a White House position paper to Congress Tuesday calling on lawmakers to make it easier for federally funded religious groups to base their hiring decisions on a job candidate's religion and sexual orientation, The Washington Post reports. The document argues that "religious hiring rights" are part of religious organizations' civil rights. "When they receive federal funds, they should retain their right to hire those individuals who are best able to further their organization's goals and mission," the document says. If religious organizations are not allowed discretion in hiring, they will be deterred from providing services, and "the real losers are the poor," H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told the Post. Towey said that during meetings with officials of charities throughout the country, there was great confusion about hiring laws. "It's been abundantly clear that the religious hiring issue is a real barrier for a lot of faith-based organizations."

The White House document is the first time the president has spelled out his position on the matter. It puts Bush in a much more aggressive position on a highly charged issue and comes as his reelection campaign is picking up speed. The paper demonstrates that Bush continues to work on proposals backed by religious organizations even though he has been unable to win passage of the broad "faith-based initiative" he advocated in the 2000 campaign. The paper calls on Congress to clarify a confusing and sometimes contradictory area of law. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act says that religious groups can hire staff members based on candidates' religious beliefs, which at least one court has interpreted to include views on sexual orientation. But no broad federal law bans discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation; only some state and local laws do. The laws that authorize some federal social service programs, such as job training, prohibit discrimination only on the basis of age, gender, race, and religion.

Some religious leaders and Administration officials lauded Bush's position paper as an important effort to bring religious organizations into the federal charity fold. Towey noted that President Clinton signed into law four measures--including the 1996 Welfare Reform Act--that allowed religious organizations receiving federal funds to hire on a religious basis. But Christopher E. Anders, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the changes Bush seeks would institutionalize religious bias. "The Administration can sugarcoat it as much as it likes," he said, "but the idea has no traction in Congress." Indeed, proposed hiring exemptions for religious organizations have been a major reason the faith-based initiative has floundered. Congress passed a watered-down version this spring that provided tax benefits to all charities but gave no special protections to religious groups. The Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the White House proposal "another last-ditch effort by Bush to save his faith-based initiative."