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

Equal Treatment, YES; Discrimination and Demagoguery, NO

Keith Pavlischek


February 26, 2001

On January 29, 2001, with much fanfare and media attention, President Bush signed an executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office opened officially for business last Tuesday. Some in the media were completely surprised by the whole event. But they shouldn't have been since Charitable Choice, which the office is tasked with implementing, has already been adopted into four separate federal laws and has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, including that of Al Gore.

But the occasion also provided a soapbox for opponents to trumpet apocalyptic alarm. In a short press release, Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, called the move "misguided," "dangerous," "blatant bigotry," a "constitutional nightmare," a "disastrous step" and, of course, a "radical assault" on the separation of church and state. He later claimed the President's "plan for social services would essentially merge church and state into a single bureaucracy that would dispense religion alongside government aid." Proving that even the most well-intentioned policy is not immune from race-baiting demagoguery, Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who had suggested in December that Bush's expansion of Charitable Choice is a "substitute for racial discrimination" (The Washington Post 12/21), added in January that the policy was akin to the old Jim Crow policy of "separate but equal."

These criticisms reveal the main line of attack against the Bush initiatives. The basic charge is that any federal funding of faith-based social services amounts to "employment discrimination" because it allows faith-based groups to use religion as a factor in hiring their staff. The ACLU's website proclaims, "Under the Bush initiative...a Catholic Church receiving public funds for literacy programs could fire a teacher for getting pregnant outside marriage." The AU website shrieks, "A Bob Jones-style religious group...will be able to receive tax aid to pay for a social service job, but still be free to hang up a sign that says 'Jews And Catholics Need Not Apply.'"

The answer to this demagoguery is quite simple. Religious non-profits aren't asking for "special treatment" when they insist on the right to hire and fire staff in accordance with their beliefs and convictions, but are simply demanding the same right enjoyed by secular non-profits. For instance, Planned Parenthood, which receives public funds, is perfectly free to refuse to hire counselors who don't share its ideological views about abortion. Fairness under the law requires that faith-based organizations have the same right to hire and fire on the basis of their own religious and moral convictions and preferred methodological approaches to service. This isn't special treatment; it is equal treatment. And if all groups receive the same benefits and none is excluded from eligibility, then there is no employment discrimination. Charitable Choice has simply leveled the playing field by codifying equal treatment into the law. Faith-based non-profits are no longer treated as second-class citizens forced to surrender their legal rights as a condition of working with government.

Opponents who cry "employment discrimination" aren't interested in equal treatment. Their real aim is to intimidate faith-based organizations into diluting their religious character and to cower those tasked with implementing and enforcing the law to compromise on this point. To capitulate would undermine the very purpose of Charitable Choice. The result would be a return to the old status quo in which government gives privileged status either to various secularist ideologies or to those social service organizations that have already surrendered their religious character. That would be unjust law and bad policy.

—Keith Pavlischek, Fellow
   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.”