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

Faith-Based Policy: Will the Center Hold?

Stanley Carlson-Thies


May 21, 2010

Critics keep demanding that the President drastically change the faith-based initiative that now spans three administrations. President Obama, they say, is not following candidate Obama’s promise to make the initiative constitutional. The critics charge that the President, by not rewriting the initiative’s regulations, is allowing federal money illicitly to support religion. Yet, giving in to the critics’ demands would destroy, not improve, the initiative. It would wreck valuable government partnerships with faith-based organizations serving the needy.

The President asked his new Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to say how to strengthen the constitutional foundations of the initiative. The Council’s membership, and its working groups, were diverse religiously and ideologically. The Reform of the Office Taskforce, on which I served, spent months deliberating about the regulations, and the Council itself debated additional hours. And the result? In its March recommendations the Council proposed keeping, with a few adjustments, the rules developed over the past fifteen years.

It turns out that, with a new administration in charge and after years of experience, a broad consensus has emerged. Government grants can’t pay for religion but neither can government forbid voluntary religious activities. No religion may be imposed on beneficiaries and no secularism may be imposed on faith-based organizations.

But there is no such consensus on the critics’ charge that the President is allowing an unconstitutional and immoral practice to continue by not fulfilling his campaign promise to forbid religious hiring in every service a faith group operates with federal funds. President Bush, they say, initiated government funding of religious job discrimination; President Obama must end it immediately.

Yet religious hiring by the government’s religious partners long pre-dates the Bush administration. Nearly half a century ago, in crafting our nation’s basic civil rights rules for employment, Congress specifically chose not to stop religious organizations from taking account of religion when deciding on staff. Since then, Congress has forbidden religious hiring in some specific federal programs but usually has chosen not to override this freedom—and sometimes has specifically confirmed it.

The universal ban that candidate Obama rashly promised would thus be not only unprecedented but also vastly disruptive. Many faith-based organizations have told the administration, in private or public, that such a change would force them to end their collaboration with government. Far more than a loss of government funds for these groups, this would mean for the government a loss of trusted partners and for countless individuals, families, and communities the loss of a valued source of help.

The critics are not dissuaded. Religious hiring by government partners is immoral and must be stopped. Somehow government money in a faith group’s bank account magically converts the congressionally blessed hiring freedom into unjustifiable bias.

Instead, the religious hiring freedom is centrist policy. It authorizes no invidious discrimination. Rather, it acknowledges that government should stay out of this religious decisionmaking.  And it accepts that, for religious organizations, religion is such a defining factor that it can be appropriately considered in deciding about employee qualifications. But there is no general authorization to discriminate; ethnic, racial, gender, and age bias are forbidden.

But do what the critics demand and all of a sudden a carefully balanced employment law will be undone. Faith groups will have to either concede that government knows better than they do how important religion is to their operations, or they will have to abandon their service partnerships with government. The President is right to stay in the center, no matter how loud his critics become.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, President
    Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance

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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.”