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

Let Baptists be Baptists

Stephen Lazarus


April 24, 2000

Imagine this. A hard-core, Republican activist interviews for a job on Capitol Hill in the office of the Senate's most liberal Democratic member. He gets turned down. The office hires a Democrat instead. The Republican sues, alleging job discrimination.

Let's try another one. A Baptist preacher's wife walks into an Islamic mosque in New York City and attends a worship service. She gets upset and sues, because they didn't conduct a Baptist service for her.

These are both hypothetical cases, but Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children is not.

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are suing the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children for firing an employee, Alicia Pedreira, because she claims to be a practicing lesbian. They argue that Ms. Pedreira has a right to keep her job as a counselor at Baptist Homes, even though the organization teaches troubled youth in its care that homosexual practice is a sin, and not "an alternative lifestyle" to celebrate.

But, the plaintiffs argue, much of the money for employee salaries at Baptist Homes comes from grants and contracts with state government. If the organization receives public funds, it can't discriminate in hiring, can it?

Yes, it can. Here are three good reasons. First, courts have repeatedly upheld the right of faith-based organizations to use religion as a factor in hiring and firing decisions. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act guarantees this right to religious groups. Furthermore, in the Amos case in 1986 Justice Brennan reaffirmed that such a right is necessary for a religious organization to maintain its identity and mission. A religious community, he wrote, "represents an on-going tradition of shared beliefs, an organic entity not reducible to a mere aggregation of individuals. Determining that certain activities [such as counseling] are in furtherance of an organization's religious mission, and that only those committed to that mission should conduct them, is thus a means by which a religious community defines itself."

Second, organizations that accept public money to provide a service do not become mere arms of the government. When the state of Kentucky buys social welfare services from community groups such as Baptist Homes for Children, these groups do not have to adopt all the beliefs and practices of government agencies. They retain their independence and particular character. These organizations have professional norms of their own, which should be respected. To require them to do otherwise is as foolish as requiring a Muslim minister to preach a Baptist sermon, or a Democratic Senator to hire a Republican. Some types of discrimination—even with public funds—are not only permissible, but also necessary.

Third, if the government requires religious groups to hire people who do not share their vision and mission, it ceases to be an even-handed referee among America's diverse religious traditions, and in fact becomes an advocate for secularism. The government could require Baptist Homes to employ Ms. Pedreira. However, that would also require the organization to adopt a particular—and more secular—way of living out its religious mission. In theory, the government could also forbid the organization from hiring her. But this would again overstep the limits of government's authority, and would impose a different orthodoxy on Ms. Pedreira and her former employer. Only by refusing to dictate the hiring policy of faith-based organizations in this matter can government preserve its ability to be an impartial judge when worldviews conflict in public life.

The government should let Baptist groups be Baptist, Islamic groups be Islamic, and Democratic groups be Democratic. Counseling groups that promote the gay lifestyle are free to hire Ms. Pedreira, but Baptist Homes should not be compelled to do so. Contrary to its stated purpose, a lawsuit such as this actually poses a serious threat to religious liberty. In their zeal to make public life into a religion-free zone, strict separationists such as Americans United and the ACLU jeopardize religious liberty by asking the state to serve as an engine of secularism.

—Stephen Lazarus, Social Policy Research 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.”