Battling 'Faith-Based Bias: Tax-Funded Hiring Discrimination by Religious Charities Is Wrong, AU's Lynn Tells Congress

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For U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, one of the biggest threats posed by the "faith-based" initiative is that it undermines fair-employment policies first put in place more than 60 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"No discrimination with federal funds has been the policy of this government for decades - at least until the so-called faith-based initiative," the Virginia Democrat said during a recent congressional hearing on the matter. "If this bigotry based on religion is tolerated, racial and sexual discrimination disguised as religious discrimination certainly follows. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out if you get a pass on religion, it will be impossible to enforce non-discrimination laws based on race."

Scott's comments came Nov. 18 during a hearing on the initiative held by the House Committee on the Judiciary's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. And he wasn't the only one to raise the issue of religiously based hiring bias by publicly funded faith-based charities.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn got an opportunity to weigh in as well. Lynn was asked to testify and outlined several concerns about the initiative.

"The single most important action that remains is to undo President Bush's Executive Orders and regulations that permit a religious entity that receives a government grant or contract to make hiring decisions, for the very programs that are federally funded, on the basis of religion," Lynn told the subcommittee during his opening statement. "This is sometimes referred to as 'preferential hiring'; it is more accurately labeled simply as 'discrimination.' And it is ethically and legally wrong."

Lynn's full written testimony to the subcommittee, which ran 13 pages and included an additional 77 pages of supporting material, touched on other flaws in the initiative. He criticized the policy for being politicized during the presidency of George W. Bush and expressed concern that vulnerable people were being subjected to unwanted religious activities.

But the issue of taxpayer-subsidized hiring bias on the basis of religion remained the focal point of the hearing.

"I don't want to impair the religious character of any church or temple or charitable group," Lynn said.

"But the 'free exercise' of religion is not burdened when a group voluntarily accepts government funds knowing that it contains constraints on religiously motivated conduct, like hiring only its own followers. The First Amendment is not an excuse to refuse to play by American rules when you are playing with Americans' dollars."

Lynn pointed to two recent examples of religious bias: Saad Mohammad Ali and Mohammed Zeitoun, two Muslims who had worked with World Relief, an evangelical agency, were denied permanent employment because they are not Christian.

Ali, an Iraqi refugee, had volunteered at World Relief for six months, and his manager suggested he apply for a job as an Arabic-speaking caseworker. A few days later, Ali was told he would not be considered for the position because he is a Muslim. Zeitoun was already working at the Seattle-based group but was fired because he refused to affirm World Relief's theological mission statement.

This discrimination happened even though World Relief gets about 65 percent of its budget from government sources.

The subcommittee hearing, coming as the Democrats prepared to surrender control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party, was a milestone. For years, Americans United has led a broad collection of religious, civil liberties and public policy organizations called the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD).

During the hearing, several members of Congress joined Scott in speaking out against tax-funded employment discrimination.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), then chairman of the subcommittee, observed, "It is no secret that I have been extremely disappointed with this administration's handling of these difficult issues. …