As House Passes Taxpayer Funded Religious Discrimination, ACLU Calls on Senate to Restore Civil Rights Protections

February 4, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In the latest move for President Bush’s scheme for government-funded religion, the American Civil Liberties Union today expressed its disappointment with the failure of an amendment to a community services funding measure that would have stopped government funded religious discrimination and religious activities.

“Religious organizations have the right to run their operations as they see fit – just not on the taxpayer’s dime,” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU legislative counsel. “The amendment’s failure means that the block grant program could allow funds to go to groups who violate the civil rights of religious minorities and inhibit their access to vital federal services. Such activities would violate parameters established by the Supreme Court that ensure that taxpayer dollars do not fund religious discrimination or religious activities.”

At issue is the Community Services Block Grant Act of 2003 (HR 3030). While the language of the act states that no funds may be used for “inherently religious activities,” the measure fails to clarify what activities would fall under that purview. The ACLU said similar loose guidelines used in other government activities have led to programs being implemented that were later found to be unconstitutional. For example, one faith-based organization that received govermment funds used Bible stories in its vocational training programs.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) had offered an amendment that would protect civil right, seeking to ensure that the block grant recipients do not use federal funds to engage in religious discrimination. In addition, it would require that each recipient apply funds in a “lawful and secular manner.” These provisions parallel the Bowen decision and ensure that taxpayer-funded faith based organizations refrain from discrimination. While that measure failed on a 183 to 232 vote, the ACLU noted that all similar government funded religion provisions that have passed in the House have died in the Senate due to the lack of support for the controversial government programs.

Religious organizations can participate in federal programs if they uphold civil rights protections and operate the programs in a secular manner. But the current block grant bill specifically would allow government-funded religious groups to discriminate against employees in federally funded programs; a provision that the ACLU said is clearly unconstitutional. In 1988’s Bowen v. Kendrick, for example, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority of the Supreme Court in holding that religious organizations may use public monies only if they do not “discriminate on the basis of religion” in the specific program and if all programs are carried out “in a lawful, secular manner.”

The ACLU said that its concern about misuse of CSBG funds is heightened by the push by the Bush Administration to send more taxpayer dollars to religious groups that discriminate against anyone who does not share the group’s beliefs. In Monday’s New York Times, it was disclosed that the Salvation Army in New York, a recipient of $70 million in state and city funds for its social service programs, is now asking employees about their church affiliations.

“Americans don’t want to see their taxes go to an institution that refuses to hire someone who is otherwise qualified because of his or her religious beliefs,” added Anders. “It’s wrong to deny someone a taxpayer-funded job because the person is the ‘wrong’ religion or practices the ‘right’ religion the ‘wrong’ way.”

The ACLU’s letter to the House on the Community Services Block Grant Act can be found at:

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