Byline: Joseph Loconte, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT
When President George W. Bush launched his faith-based initiative three years ago, no one doubted it would stir up debates about the separation of church and state. What few observers expected, however, was that a prerequisite of a democratic society the freedom of religion would come under assault. Indeed, in a reckless effort to ban government support to religious charities, liberals threaten to destroy the independence not only of religious institutions but of nearly every private organization engaged in civic life.
On Feb. 4, in a House of Representatives debate over the Improving the Community Services Block Grant Act (HR 3030), liberal lawmakers once again tried to strip away the right of faith-based groups to consider religion in their hiring decisions. Their proposed amendments were defeated, though they're certain to raise them again in other legislation in the House and Senate. Indeed, liberals and activists are relentlessly promoting a radical vision of the secular state, all under the guise of an "antidiscrimination" policy: If a religious charity accepts a dime of government funding, it cannot discriminate in hiring for any reason not even to uphold the religious mission of the organization. To do so, they say, violates key provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They warn that faith-based employment amounts to "federally funded discrimination" that will "turn back the clock on civil rights."
These critics are grievously mistaken about existing law, about established public policy and about the moral principles at stake in this debate. Architects of the sixties' civil-rights laws plainly understood the importance of protecting faith-based institutions from government control. While banning acts of discrimination in employment based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion or national origin under Title VII, they crafted an exemption for religious organizations, including churches, colleges and universities. Congress expanded the statutory exemption in 1972 to cover most employees at most religious institutions any "religious corporation, association, education institution or society" whether they served in clergy positions or not.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the protections in its 1987 ruling in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Amos. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, no great advocate of conservative religion, is worth quoting at length:
"Determining that certain activities are in furtherance of an organization's religious mission, and that only those committed to that mission should conduct them, is thus a means by which a religious community defines itself. Solicitation for a church's ability to do so reflects the idea that furtherance of the autonomy of religious organizations often furthers individual religious freedom as well."
During the last several years, both the president and the Congress consistently have reinforced the hiring protections for faith-based organizations. Indeed, President Bill Clinton signed "charitable-choice" laws no less than four times, each stipulating that groups preserve their right to staff on a religious basis even when they receive federal funds. The protections form part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and the 1998 version of the Community Services Block Grant Act and cover billions of dollars in federal assistance. President Bush issued an executive order in December 2002 to extend the hiring provision to all federal social-service programs. In the 108th Congress, the House has restated these clarifications for religious groups using funds under Head Start and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Most recently, Congress affirmed religious hiring rights for private schools that will participate in the Washington voucher initiative, enacted as a part of the Fiscal 2004 Omnibus Appropriations Act.
The fact is, opponents of the exemption are trying to undo 35 years of civil-rights guarantees by undermining the independence of faith-based institutions. …