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Obama Promised to Stop Government-Funded Discrimination. Has He?

By Dena Sher, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 3:51pm

Four years ago last month, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to ensure that religious organizations that receive government funds to provide social services abide by the Constitution and are not allowed to discriminate with government funding. Today, we sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Department of Justice to follow up on that promise.

If you get government funding to run a social service program, you should not be able to refuse to hire employees or serve those in need because of their religion. People have the right to their religious beliefs, but this does not give them the right to discriminate. That means no one is forced to go to a religious rehabilitation program, no one is turned away from a homeless shelter for being the wrong religion, and no one is treated unfairly for not attending a worship service after receiving a government-funded meal at a soup kitchen. That also means no qualified candidate for a job, funded by the government, should be told she didn’t get the job because she is the wrong religion. Candidate Obama got it and promised to end both practices. But President Obama hasn’t—so far—made good on his promise.

2009, 2010, and 2011 went by and the Obama Administration failed to implement any of these changes. Finally, after three-plus years and a dragged-out process involving lots of committees and meetings but no concrete results, we’re seeing small progress toward the implementation of parts—but not all—of Obama’s campaign promise.

A government working group recently issued a long-awaited report with model policies for how to protect from discrimination those who seek taxpayer-funded social services. First, any person must be able to be referred to another provider if she objects to the religious nature of the organization where she receives services. Second, organizations that receive federal grants must be given clearer guidance on how to implement their programs to ensure that the people they serve aren’t discriminated against because they don’t agree to also attend a religious class after they go to a government-funded job training class.

Mind you, these are still just recommendations, and there’s a long way to go before they are implemented. We look forward to working with the Obama administration to get the best policies in place as soon as possible. The people served in government-funded programs—often the most vulnerable—deserve no less.

But, protecting those in need isn’t the only thing Obama promised on the campaign trail back in 2008. He also promised to “promptly reverse” Bush-era policies and end hiring discrimination on the basis of religion in government-funded social service programs. As soon as he took office, however, he instead decided that hiring discrimination would be reviewed on a “case-by-case” basis. Despite trying to find out more about this mysterious review, we’ve had no luck. Until now.

In response to questions from Rep. Bobby Scott, Attorney General Eric Holder finally described the Department of Justice’s “case-by-case” review. There doesn’t seem to be much actual “review” in the review. Rather, if a religious organization gets money from the Department of Justice and wants to impose a religious test on the people it hires to work in the government-funded program, it seems that it must simply tell the government that it plans to discriminate. Several religious organizations have done just that.

Last year, Holder acknowledged this awkward position: “We don't want to be in a position where people are in fact getting federal grants and discriminating,” continuing, “We don't want to do that. We try not to do that but....” But, it seems they are. We’ll be waiting to hear back on our FOIAs, so stay tuned.

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