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Obama Says Employment Discrimination "A Very Difficult Issue." It's Not.

Dena Sher,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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August 3, 2011

At his July 22 town hall meeting, President Obama was asked about his 2008 declaration to reform the “faith-based initiative,” clearly stating that faith-based groups that receive taxpayer money to provide social services will no longer be able to discriminate in hiring with taxpayer dollars.

Despite this promise, his administration has taken no action to reverse Bush-era policies still in place that permit this exact type of hiring discrimination. The administration’s initial and oft-repeated talking point is that the Justice Department is reviewing the issue on a case-by-case basis. President Obama’s response at the town hall meeting was less evasive, but it completely missed the mark.

He explained that he thought his administration had “struck the right balance”:

If you have set up a nonprofit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, then you have to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices.

If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a mosque or a church, then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.

To be sure, when President Obama says “more leeway,” what he means is he’s willing to allow religious institutions to provide government-funded social services by hiring only people who pass a religious litmus test.

This doesn’t “strike the right balance.” Instead it places the interests of religious organizations, which voluntarily seek government funding, above the right of individuals to perform in a workplace free of religious discrimination.

When using their own funds, religious organizations have the right to choose employees based on religion. But, when jobs are paid for with taxpayer dollars, no organization can discriminate in those positions. From 1941 to 2002, the federal government made a commitment to equal opportunity for all Americans who seek jobs government-funded jobs, regardless of their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not yet seen fit to subscribe in practice to this core civil rights principle.

It goes without saying that synagogues, mosques, and churches shouldn’t get government funding in the first place. This is at the heart of the separation of church and state. President Obama has perpetuated Bush-era policies that permit the government to fund houses of worship. As President Obama’s own advisory council recommended, houses of worship should (and we believe must) create separate non-profits to partner with the government. Yet, President Obama’s response shows not only that taxpayer dollars go directly to houses of worship, but also that they may be rewarded for not creating a separate non-profit by getting a pass on anti-discrimination laws.

President Obama also implied that the government permits only houses of worship to discriminate when hiring for government-funded positions. But we know that nonprofits like World Vision and World Relief—non-churches that receive significant sums of taxpayer money and have religious tests for employees—have been imploring the president to maintain the Bush-era policies permitting hiring discrimination.

President Obama tried to find political cover by saying the hiring issue started under President Clinton. The Clinton administration, however, never established any policies to permit hiring discrimination by religious organizations for taxpayer-funded positions. It was President Bush who started this and President Obama who has maintained these harmful policies for more than two years.

President Obama claimed this is “a very difficult issue.” It is not. Fairness and justice and the Constitution can’t be compromised. President Obama knew the right answer in 2008. We have reminded him. Now it’s your turn: Tell President Obama to do the right thing and end taxpayer-funded hiring discrimination.

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