SCA Urges Obama Administration to End Religious Discrimination Through Faith-Based Initiatives

WASHINGTON, DC—The Secular Coalition for America stands with the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) in calling for a transparent review process in how the executive branch’s faith-based offices are handling religious discrimination claims in the hiring of government-funded positions by religious organizations.

The religious discrimination in hiring exemption for religious groups is allowed as part of a multibillion dollar federal program called the faith-based initiative, and it is now active in 14 federal agencies and departments including USDA, Commerce, Labor, HHS, HUD, Education, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, EPA, SBA, USAID, Corporation for National and Community Services, and DOJ. Today CARD sent a letter to each of these agencies, calling for a transparent review process  of how religious discrimination in hiring complaints are reviewed.

“In almost 3 years, the Obama administration has done little to address the consequences of allowing religious organizations to discriminate in hiring with taxpayer dollars, “ said Amanda Knief, government relations manager for the Secular Coalition. “We are asking for these agencies and offices to show us how they are handling these cases.”

Within the faith-based initiative, religious organizations may accept taxpayer funds in order to provide government-contracted social services, such as a soup kitchen or foster care, and use those funds to hire only those who also practice the same faith, whether or not the job itself has any religious function. An otherwise qualified individual who applies to a faith-based organization for a job may be rejected solely because he or she practices the wrong religion or has no religion at all. 

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to restore anti-discrimination protections and end policies put in place by the George W. Bush Administration that permit the federal government to subsidize employment discrimination on the basis of religion. More than two years later, this issue has not been adequately addressed and the administration states it will make determinations on religious discrimination on a “case-by-case” basis without offering specifics about how individual cases will be addressed.

In July, Knief pressed President Obama at a town hall meeting about his failed campaign promise to end employment discrimination by faith-based organizations that accept taxpayer funding.

“Religious freedom is an individual right—it does not belong to an organization,” Knief said. “These groups that choose to use religious discrimination in hiring and other ways are imposing their ideology on others which means it cannot be defined as freedom.”

In particular, the CARD letter sent today calls for general transparency in the review process – including information on the cases previously or currently under review under this mechanism– as well as an explanation of review standards and protocols. 

In 2007, the last year for which comprehensive numbers are available, $2.2 billion in federal grants were awarded to faith-based organizations by 11 federal agencies. That is about 11 percent of the $20.4 billion in federal grants that were awarded. By allowing these organizations to operate with tax dollars outside the federal guidelines that secular organizations are held to, the government is subsidizing religious discrimination.

“Religious and secular nonprofit groups should be treated the same under the law,” Knief said. “Taxpayer dollars should not be used to endorse any kind of discrimination.”

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