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House OKs Bill on Faith-Based Jobs

Times Staff Writer

The House on Wednesday approved a job-training bill that would allow faith-based organizations receiving federal funds to consider a person’s religious beliefs in making employment decisions.

Under current law, religious groups that receive federal money for job-training programs must obey civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in hiring or firing.

Passage of the bill, on a largely party-line vote of 224-200, came a day after President Bush told a group of religious leaders that he would attempt to institute the faith-based employment policies through an executive order if Congress did not approve them this year.

In a statement Wednesday supporting the bill, the White House said, “Receipt of federal funds should not be conditioned on a faith-based organization’s giving up a part of its religious identity and mission.”

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The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. It provides funds for training and vocational rehabilitation programs for adults and dislocated workers, as well as activities for low-income youth.

Its prospects are uncertain in the Senate, where Democrats are objecting to cuts in some programs and the religious discrimination provision.

The California delegation split along party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor of the bill’s passage and all Democrats opposed -- with the exception of Reps. Juanita Millender-McDonald (Carson), Grace F. Napolitano (Norwalk) and Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco), who did not vote.

Administration officials contended that some faith-based charities were discouraged from seeking federal grants because they feared the ban on discriminatory hiring would cause them to lose their religious identities.

But opponents alleged that allowing organizations to use such considerations in employment decisions amounted to government-sponsored discrimination.

Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the group was very disappointed with the results of Wednesday’s vote but nonetheless hopeful.

“We are confident that the Senate will not go along with this, and ultimately it will not become law,” Conn said. “President Bush has pushed this faith-based initiative for years now, but he hasn’t been able to get it through Congress due to concerns over civil rights.”

Earlier Wednesday, the House rejected, 186-239, an amendment sponsored by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) that would have removed the religious-based employment language from the bill.

During debate on the amendment, Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) said the provision allowing consideration of religious beliefs was equivalent to “turning the clock back on civil rights.”

“Faith-based institutions should be required to adhere to basic civil rights laws,” McGovern said.

“This provision is offensive, it is ugly, it is wrong, and beyond that, Mr. Speaker, I believe it is unconstitutional. It is important that we oppose discrimination at every turn,” he said.

But Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the amendment would deny faith-based institutions their rights under the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which allows religious organizations to take religion into account in hiring practices. The Supreme Court upheld these rights for faith-based institutions in 1987, he said.

The California delegation split along party lines on this vote as well, with all Republicans opposing the amendment and all Democrats -- except for Millender-McDonald and Napolitano, who did not vote -- supporting it.


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