Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Shrinking Religious Liberty

James Skillen


February 23, 2004

The House of Representatives did the right thing earlier this month in voting to reauthorize the Community Services Block Grant program that funds services for poor neighborhoods. In a fierce debate, opponents had tried hard to weaken the Charitable Choice language added in 1998, fighting in particular to strip out the right of faith-based groups receiving CSBG funds to hire employees who agree with their faith. The House turned back that attack on religious freedom with a strong majority that included most Republicans and a dozen courageous Democrats. But the arguments of the opponents should worry us all.

How did the opponents argue that it is wrong for a faith-based organization delivering federally funded services to take account of the faith of job applicants? One prominent claim was this: the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom requires that no one suffer religious discrimination when seeking work. That's an appealing argument, but it leaves out something vital: the religious freedom of organizations. Organizations are one key way that people put their beliefs into practice, and if a religious organization cannot exclude people who don't share its beliefs, it can hardly embody those beliefs for long. We all accept the principle for secular groups: who would force the Democratic critics of religious staffing to hire die-hard Republicans for their Capitol Hill staffs?

Critics also claimed that faith-based organizations shouldn't care about their employees' religion, because religion isn't a legitimate job qualification for someone ladling out soup. But Congress itself thought otherwise when in the 1964 Civil Rights Act it exempted religious employers from the ban on religious job discrimination. Back then, Congress understood that it is up to the religious organization, and not the government, to decide on job qualifications.

The exemption in the Civil Rights Act is as plain as day and has been unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, so usually opponents claim that they object not to the private employment practices of religious groups, but to what they call "government-funded job discrimination." But listen to the actual rhetoric on the House floor. Here's Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX): "In effect, what this bill does is to subsidize, not just tolerate, but to subsidize religious bigotry in America." Or Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who spoke of our nation's long efforts to "eradicate the insidious venom of discrimination" as she condemned what she termed government-subsidized discrimination.

Various opponents of Charitable Choice also confidently stated that religious staffing isn't actually important to faith-based organizations, so Congress should not, as one member put it, "urge" them to "discriminate." The truth, however, is just the opposite. That's what Congress acknowledged in the Civil Rights Act. That's what testimony quoted in the debate from Catholic Charities and other groups confirms. That's why Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish organizations sent letters to House members defending religious staffing.

There was a time when such attacks on so-called "government-funded job discrimination" could be regarded mainly as a tactical ploy—just the new strategy adopted by opponents of the faith-based initiative, once it became clear that they couldn't derail Charitable Choice by calling it a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. But the opponents haven't merely discovered a powerful bumper-sticker slogan for bashing Bush. Their words undermine the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom and attack the autonomy and integrity of religious organizations. And their words slander the good name of faith-based groups that desire only to remain true to their mission when they agree to help the government serve people in need.

—Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Fellow
    Center for Pulbic Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”