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A persuasive case against faith-based hiring with federal funds

A persuasive case against faith-based hiring with federal funds
President Obama bows his head during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 5. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Religious organizations long have been valuable partners with the federal government in providing services ranging from child care to drug and alcohol rehabilitation to the resettlement of refugees. But organizations that receive grants from Washington rightly must be willing to care not only for their own flock but for all people in need. Even former President George W. Bush, who made federal cooperation with faith-based agencies a priority, acknowledged that.

But when it came to hiring, the Bush administration allowed faith-based agencies to discriminate in favor of members of their own faith, even if the grant program in question required recipients not to do so. That policy is undergirded by a 2007 opinion from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that is still in force. It concludes that preferring co-religionists is justified by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows case-by-case challenges to government actions that "substantially burden" the free exercise of religion.

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Last week, 130 civil rights and liberal organizations sent a letter to President Obama urging him to reconsider the 2007 memo. The groups make a persuasive case. As Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the signatories, puts it, the memo provides a legal rationale for "taxpayer-funded religious discrimination."

Such discrimination is troubling. It also exposes a contradiction that runs through the government subsidization of social services by religious groups. A key rationale for such assistance is that, as Bush put it in a 2002 speech, religious agencies "inspire life-changing faith in a way that government never should." Yet under rules that Bush himself supported, those agencies can't talk about that faith. Thus a Christian group running, say, a drug rehabilitation program may not tell participants that accepting Jesus must be part of their recovery.

If faith-based agencies that receive federal funds must keep explicit religious appeals out of their social services, they also should be required not to discriminate in the hiring of those who engage in that work. Religious groups can fairly insist that their spiritual leaders and boards of directors must subscribe to the faith, but if a church-affiliated soup kitchen can't proselytize, it makes no sense for it to be allowed to use government funds to hire only cooks who are believers.

Some major faith-based groups that receive federal funds have no problem with opening their hiring to all. Catholic Relief Services says it considers job applicants on merit and without regard to religious beliefs. Every religious group receiving federal funds should have to make the same commitment.

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