President Bush on Tuesday threatened to impose controversial new policies to let federally funded religious charities make hiring decisions based on the religious beliefs of potential employees.
Calling for an expansion of his faith-based initiative, Bush said that if Congress did not vote for the changes in hiring law this year, he would consider doing it himself through “executive action.” Administration officials later said it remained unclear what powers the president had to affect hiring laws through executive order.
The president’s remarks came on the eve of a House vote on the hiring issue. Administration officials say that some religious charities have been dissuaded from applying for federal grants out of fear that they would lose their religious identities in having to comply with civil rights laws that prevent discrimination in hiring.
Opponents say the change would be tantamount to government-sponsored discrimination, a fear that led Senate Democrats and skeptical Republicans to block the initiative during Bush’s first term.
“One of the key reasons why many faith-based groups are so effective is a commitment to serve that is grounded in the shared values and religious identity of their volunteers and employees,” Bush said. “In other words, effectiveness happens because people who share a faith show up to help a particular organization based on that faith to succeed. And that’s important, now, for people in Washington to understand.”
Bush’s faith-based initiative has been credited with boosting the GOP vote in battleground states last year among African Americans and Latinos. Under the initiative, the administration has encouraged federal agencies to funnel more money to religious organizations that Bush says often perform social services more effectively than the government.
The House is expected to approve legislation today that, among other things, would allow religious organizations that receive federal job-training grants to consider religious beliefs when hiring staff. The measure’s fate is less certain in the Senate.
Bush, speaking Tuesday at a conference of groups involved in the faith-based initiative, said Congress should pass the measure to clear up a confusing web of laws regarding whether federally funded religious groups can restrict hiring to people with matching beliefs.
President Clinton signed laws that the White House was now contending permitted such hiring practices, including a landmark 1996 welfare measure that permitted preferential hiring by faith-based organizations engaged in welfare-to-work programs.
But other laws prohibit discrimination under federally funded job-training and education programs.
Opponents charged that Bush misinterpreted the laws signed by Clinton, and that the measures being sought by Bush represented a sharp shift in U.S. policy, creating an historic rollback of civil rights laws.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Church and State, which opposes the House bill, said the legislation being considered by the House would roll back existing discrimination statutes.
“It is astonishing that the president would put his so-called moral power behind a rollback of the nation’s civil rights principles,” Lynn said. He said that he would defend any religious organization’s right to hire whomever it pleased for jobs and programs not funded by the federal government. But, he said, “this is about tax dollars being used affirmatively to fund discrimination.”
Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), who has led opposition to the job-training legislation to be voted on today, said Tuesday that institutionalizing religious discrimination would lead directly to legalized racial discrimination. He said blacks would be shut out of jobs created by a Mormon organization, given that Mormonism was almost entirely white, while whites would be shut out of jobs created by programs run by the Nation of Islam or the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“That is a profound change in position for the federal government,” he said.
Bush’s faith-based initiative has proved politically beneficial to the GOP, which has used taxpayer-financed grants as an entree into black, Latino and evangelical churches, many of which are run by charismatic pastors who backed Bush’s reelection.
But the program came under criticism last month from a former official from the White House faith-based office, David Kuo, who penned a column for a religion website accusing the administration of failing to live up to Bush’s campaign promises to be a “compassionate conservative.” Kuo criticized the White House as failing to lobby hard enough for major expenditures and changes to help religious charities, including a tax break for charitable giving by people who do not itemize their tax returns.
That deduction didn’t pass amid criticism that the measure was too costly in light of Bush’s other tax breaks. In his budget for 2006, Bush for the first time did not request it.
Still, Bush said that the administration had increased spending on faith-based groups. Bush said the government spent $2 billion in fiscal year 2004 on such organizations, an increase over the $1.1 billion the administration said was spent the year before. He took credit for increasing the percentage of federal grants that go to faith-based groups.
But Jim Towey, director of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, later told reporters that the numbers were inconclusive. The 2003 figure represented spending by five agencies, while the 2004 number totaled that of seven agencies. What is more, he said, both figures might be too high or too low, because there was no systematic way to tally spending on faith-based groups.
Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), a member of the Education and Workforce Committee that produced the bill, said he planned to join other members of the Congressional Black Caucus in voting against the hiring measure. But he cautioned Democrats not to be seen as consistently negative toward programs sending real dollars and real aid to local communities.
“If we don’t have a strong alternative six months from now, we will be in serious trouble because these [faith-based] programs have great appeal,” Owens said in an interview on the eve of the vote. “We should recognize the appeal of programs that reach down to churches and community organizations to solve local problems and develop our own parallel program” but with more oversight and targeting than occurs under the White House initiative.