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

Regress, not Progress, in Georgia

Stephen Lazarus


November 17, 2003

Recent controversy over the President's Faith-based and Community Initiative has focused on one issue. When religious organizations receive government funds to provide services, do they have the right to hire only staff who share their deeply held religious beliefs? Should they be allowed to deny employment to people (say, homosexuals—or heterosexuals) who won't agree to respect an employer's faith-based behavioral standards? When the rights claims of individuals and faith-based organizations collide, how should the state intervene with justice?

This month the state of Georgia settled out of court the case of Bellmore v. United Methodist Children's Homes, a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a gay rights group, that advanced the claims of a lesbian counselor and a Jewish therapist who sued a Christian organization for refusing to employ them. In a hasty settlement, the state agreed to require all faith-based childcare and child welfare programs that get state funding to forfeit their freedom to use religious criteria in employment decisions. From now on, in Georgia, unless they agree to change their standards, any faith-based group with religious hiring policies will automatically be excluded from consideration for state contracts. Opponents of the faith-based initiative are now urging other states to follow Georgia's lead. They hail this as a "victory" for equality and individual rights.

But this is no victory. Instead, the state of Georgia is heading down a perilous path. The state's inability to defend an essential freedom of religious organizations will likely have several serious consequences. First, the state's decision to ride roughshod over legitimate religious freedom concerns will raise red flags for religious service groups, universities, and hospitals that have depended on this freedom for years. With this action, Georgia jeopardizes the possibility of forging respectful partnerships with organizations from many diverse faith traditions. For many groups, the right to hire staff members who share a common worldview or religious commitment is simply non-negotiable. It's not uncommon. These organizations operate not unlike political campaigns that "discriminate" in hiring by choosing only true believers—committed Democrats or Republicans.

Second, this decision rolls back long-established civil rights of religious organizations to govern their hiring policies and internal affairs without government interference. Courts have repeatedly upheld the right of faith-based groups to use religion as a factor in hiring and firing decisions. No universal law or constitutional principle in the U.S. requires them to give up their freedom to hire staff fully committed to their religious mission when they use public funds. Sadly, not all states, cities, or federal programs honor this freedom. Civil rights progress requires more accommodation of religious staffing, not more restrictions.

Third, organizations in Georgia are now in a devilish bind. If a faith perspective leads them to build a staff united by shared religious commitment, now they must either abandon that vision in order to join state programs or else abandon collaboration with the state in order to protect their religious mission. Georgia's new policy penalizes faith-based organizations for exercising what should be a positive, legally protected freedom. The playing field is not level if some organizations are disadvantaged simply for remaining true to their constitutionally protected convictions.

Georgia should have chosen a different path. The state should honor the right of all non-profit organizations (whether Christian or Jewish, pro-gay or pro-life, faith-based or secular) to hire the individuals they judge to be most qualified to fulfill their distinctive missions. This is not "discrimination." It is the only way to preserve the true diversity of America's social institutions, as well as individuals' rights to participate in a robust civil society.

—Stephen Lazarus, Senior Policy Associate
    Center for Public 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.”