Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Religious Staffing Rights & Head Start

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to consider a bill reauthorizing the Head Start program. Rep. Luis Fortuno (R-PR) has offered an amendment that would protect the religious staffing freedoms of religious employers participating in Head Start-funded programs.

The Education and Labor Committee rejected the amendment during mark-up in March, but there is reason to believe that Fortuno's amendment might pass on the floor.

Many of the usual suspects oppose the Fortuno amendment. A group called the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) has sent a letter to House members urging them to vote against the amendment. CARD's leaders include Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, and People for the American Way.

The most interesting of their arguments is the assertion that when religious employers preserve their religious identity by hiring co-religionists, they behave in a condemnable, invidious fashion. This is a remarkable charge, one that contradicts the accommodation of religious freedom found in virtually every police power rule banning religious discrimination in employment. If CARD is right that taking religion into account in hiring is always wrong, why should Title VII continue to exempt religious employers from the ban on religious discrimination? The presence of government dollars doesn't change the morality of religious staffing.

Another interesting note: a number of liberal religious groups oppose religious staffing freedoms. CARD's members include the American Baptist Churches (USA), the American Friends Service Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Baptist Joint Committee, the Episcopal Church USA, and the Washington Office of the PCUSA. Presumably, each of these entities preserves its particular identity by selecting its leaders from among those who share its religious commitments. As a result, their opposition to religious staffing freedom, although concededly limited to circumstances where public money is involved, undermines the foundation of their own religious liberty.

The reality is that theologically conservative groups are more likely to have and apply religious criteria in the employment context than are theologically liberal groups. Therefore, restrictions on religious staffing freedom generally don't gore the left's ox, and gore the ox of those with different theological and religious views -- views with which the left disagrees.

Hat tip: the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom, headed up by the Center for Public Justice.