A Slander Against Our Sacred Institutions

Posted on May 30, 2001 In Blog

When President Bush announced his initiative to expand the partnership between the government and America’s faith-based social service institutions, everyone expected the ensuing debate to center upon the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the ever-evolving relationship between religion and state in America. While this is indeed a prominent theme, it has been surpassed, at least in Congress, by another line of attack: the assertion that this initiative will “turn back the clock on civil rights.”

This attack is being pressed by a group that calls itself the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination. The name is a savvy tactical move by many of the same people who tried and failed to block “charitable choice” legislation. That legislation has received bipartisan support in Congress since 1996. It was signed into law four times by Democrat Bill Clinton, opening federal grant programs for job training, drug rehabilitation and other purposes to applications from faith-based providers. Moreover, its expansion to other funding streams was endorsed enthusiastically during the presidential campaign by both George Bush and Al Gore.

All of this occurred while interest groups such as the ACLU, American Jewish Congress and People for the American Way decried these measures as a violation of separation of church and state. After serial legislative defeats, initiative opponents cast about for a more potent political argument, and now they have resorted to invoking the evils of discrimination — something all Americans rightly oppose.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the great bulwark against objectionable acts of discrimination, and Title VII of that act bans discrimination in employment on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or national origin. But when they crafted the act, the architects of modern civil rights law created a narrow exemption: They permitted churches, synagogues and all other religious organizations to make hiring decisions on the basis of religion.

It would be absurd, to say the least, to suggest that a Catholic parish could be subjected to a discrimination suit if it refused to hire a Jew for its pulpit. In 1972 Congress expanded the statutory exemption to apply to almost all employees of religious institutions, whether they serve in clergy positions or not.

The Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution undoubtedly demands this broad protection, and in 1987 the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Title VII exemption as constitutional. Now opponents of the faith-based initiative have seized upon this sensible and narrowly tailored exemption in their fight against the president’s proposal. They claim that allowing federal grants to institutions enjoying the exemption amounts to subsidizing employment discrimination with taxpayer dollars. Their assumption is that faith-based hiring by institutions of faith is equal in nature to every other despicable act of discrimination in all other contexts. This is simply not true.

In fact, in the diverse and fluid society that is America 2001, religious groups are increasingly open and reflective of that diversity. There are now black Jews, Asian Evangelicals, white Muslims, and these trends will only increase. This is because, at their core, religious groups don’t care about where you come from or what you look like, only what you believe.

(Secular groups that are ideologically driven function in a similar manner and enjoy constitutional protection for their hiring practices under the freedom of association, also recognized under the First Amendment. Thus, even though Planned Parenthood may receive government grants, it cannot be compelled to hire pro-lifers.)

Those who appreciate the role of religious institutions in America, whether they support the Bush initiative or not, should resist the easy equation the opponents assert, for its implications are dangerous indeed. After all, a defining element of the civil rights era was a commitment to root out invidious forms of discrimination not only in public institutions but in the private sector — at lunch counters, in motel rooms and on bus lines. If faith institutions’ hiring practices are so terribly wrong, are we not obligated to oppose them however we can, irrespective of whether they receive federal funds? If, as the critics suggest, churches and synagogues are such bigoted institutions, why do we offer them tax-exempt status? Why do we afford their supporters tax deductions for their contributions? Why do we hallow their role in society as we do?

Other arguments can be made against the faith-based initiative, and they ought to be vigorously debated. But slandering our sacred institutions with the charge of bigotry should be ruled out of bounds.