World Relief Grief: Publicly Funded Ministry's Christians-Only Hiring Policy Begets Heartache and Harm, as Debate over Obama Inaction on 'Faith-Based' Bias Escalates
Conn, Joseph L., Church & State
Saad Mohammad Ali had every reason to think he was going to be hired for an Arabic-speaking caseworker position in World Relief's refugee resettlement program in Seattle, Wash.
The 42-year-old man is a former interpreter for the U.S. government in Iraq, he speaks English well and he is anxious to help other Iraqi refugees like himself learn to adjust to life here. He had already done that kind of work for six months as a World Relief volunteer.
To make his employment prospects even brighter, a World Relief manager had suggested that he apply for the position.
But Mohammad Ali's hopes were dashed a few days later when the manager called to say the Muslim father of three was not eligible. World Relief could not hire him, she said, because he is not a Christian.
"I've heard over and over again that in the U.S. discrimination in any form is not accepted," he told The Seattle Times. "So it was a disappointment."
But Mohammad Ali's understanding of American law is wrong. "Faith-based" social service agencies in the United States can, and do, discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, even if they get the majority of their funding from the government.
Under federal policies implemented by President George W. Bush in 2001--and left in place today by President Barack Obama - publicly subsidized religious charities are free to hire only those who profess specific religious beliefs and live in accordance with religious doctrine.
World Relief, the agency that rejected Mohammad Ali, is the social service arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. According to media reports, it gets about two-thirds of its $50 million budget from federal and state governments. But despite that massive public aid, job applicants must be Christians, sign statements of faith and obtain letters of recommendation from their ministers.
The ministry's hiring stance, which has only recently been formalized, first came to public light in March when The Seattle Times ran its article about Mohammad Ali's plight. But organizational leaders said the Christians-only employment policy has been in place informally for a number of years.
Some World Relief workers are angry about what they see as a draconian and un-Christian change.
According to the Chicago Tribune, there was an exodus of staff members in the Chicago office because they objected to the overt religious discrimination and other alterations in World Relief's character that it might portend.
Candace Embling, director of the Chicago office for five years, left. And so did Trisha Teofilo, a legal specialist. Others are apparently planning to leave as well.
"As a Christian, I feel it is my duty to advocate for the most vulnerable," Teofilo told the Tribune. "I believe Jesus would not promote a policy of discrimination."
Teofilo also worries about the effect on the refugees the agency deals with.
"I really feel for the refugee clients who have no choice," she told the newspaper. "If they are victims of religious persecution and they're being resettled through an agency staffed by all Christians who may or may not understand their plight, I think that is unjust."
World Relief's top brass claims the job bias is legal under federal law because religious groups are exempt from federal civil rights laws that ban religious discrimination. Supporters of the policy also point to executive orders and a Department of Justice memo issued during Bush's presidential tenure that specifically allow such bias.
"It's legal, but it's ridiculously wrong and un-Christian," Delia See-burg told the Tribune. Seeburg, director of immigrant legal services in World Relief's Chicago office, is looking for work elsewhere.
Mohammed Zeitoun, a Muslim who works for World Relief as an employment counselor, took the same stance.
"To ask us to change who we are, it's not right, not in the country of the United States of America--the land of the free," Zeitoun told the Tribune. …