ACLU Urges Congress to Maintain Civil Rights Protections in Head Start; Warns That Removing Provisions Would Make Law Unconstitutional

September 21, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today strongly urged the House of Representatives to oppose any amendments to the Head Start program that would repeal critical civil rights protections. That legislation, to be considered tomorrow, currently contains longstanding protections for teachers, staff and volunteers against employment discrimination. However, some lawmakers are expected to offer amendments that would repeal these key protections.

“Head Start should be about putting qualified teachers in the classrooms, and not about using public money to require people to pass a religious litmus test,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The success of Head Start is based on its commitment to helping underprivileged students and not pushing a political agenda. In its 33 year history, these civil rights protections have not hindered groups from participating in Head Start – even religiously-affiliated groups.”

At issue is the School Readiness Act (H.R. 2123), which would reauthorize the Head Start program. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce adopted it unanimously in June with the current civil rights protections intact. Current law prohibits participants in Head Start programs from discriminating based on, amongst other things, religion. These are rules that guard Head Start participants against federally funded religious discrimination.

However, some lawmakers are expected to offer amendments to the bill to remove these protections. If adopted, these new rules would mean that over 198,000 Head Start teachers and staff and over 1.5 million parent volunteers could be subjected to government-funded religious discrimination.

In addition to the ACLU, and a broad coalition of over 100 religious, education, civil rights, civil liberties and social service providers, the National Head Start Association opposes the attempts to roll back the civil rights protections, and has stated that it will oppose the underlying bill if the amendment is adopted.

The ACLU noted that these protections were included when Head Start was signed into law by President Richard Nixon and renewed by President Ronald Reagan. Also, currently, many religiously affiliated groups participate in Head Start programs and comply with these civil rights provisions like their secular counterparts.

If protections are lifted, the legislation could also abruptly sever the relationships between Head Start pupils and their teachers, who are often the most crucial adult figures in their lives outside their immediate families, and could automatically disqualify parents from becoming classroom volunteers because they subscribe to a different faith than the group running the program.

Additionally, the change in law would likely expand the old adage “11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week” into the classroom. In other words, the religious groups operating Head Start programs would have an incentive to employ teachers of the same race that predominates in their particular denomination, leading to the dismissal of all other teachers in that particular program.

“Religious discrimination has no place in America, and the Supreme Court has agreed,” said Terri Ann Schroeder, Senior Lobbyist for the ACLU. “Congress must keep these civil rights protections in place.”

To read the ACLU’s letter to Congress on the Head Start legislation, go to:
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