Secular Coalition to White House: Stop Ignoring Faith-Based Employment Discrimination

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Responding to recent comments by President Barack Obama and a top White House official, the Secular Coalition for America today urged the Obama administration to stop ignoring faith-based and taxpayer-funded employment discrimination and recommit to the president’s 2008 campaign promise to overturn the Bush-era policy that allows such discrimination to occur.

Under current guidelines established by a 2002 executive order by President George W. Bush, religious organizations that receive federal funding to engage in community services are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring or employing staff, even if the individual’s job is not related to core religious functions.

When a Secular Coalition for America staffer asked the president at a Friday town hall meeting why he has not reversed this policy, as then-candidate Obama promised he would in Zanesville, Ohio, in July 2008, the president said it was a “difficult issue” but that “the balance we tried to strike is to say that if you are offering, if you’ve set up a nonprofit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, then you have to abide, generally, with the nondiscrimination hiring practices. If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a mosque or a church then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.”

Joshua Dubois, a Pentecostal minister who serves as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, defended the Obama policy to a Denver audience on Wednesday, saying, “If your focus is first and foremost serving people in need, then there’s not a tremendous amount of time left to debate the finer points of the church-state relationship,” according to the Denver Post  

Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, criticized both Obama and Dubois’ comments for failing to address the core issue raised by critics of the faith-based policy.

“As long as this policy exists, American taxpayers are being forced to fund organizations that can fire or refuse to hire someone simply because they practice the ‘wrong’ religion or no religion at all,” Faircloth said. “Despite what the president said on Friday, religious nonprofits are still allowed to commit this type of discrimination when hiring for positions that serve no core religious function. This is not only a violation of the separation of church and state, but a glaring instance of religious privileging that harms real people. To say we don’t have time to address this issue is akin to saying we don’t have time to abide by the United States Constitution.”

The nature of the current policy ensures that most instances of discrimination go unreported, but several notable examples have come to light in recent years:

  • In 2009, Saad Mohammad Ali, an Iraqi refugee who served as an interpreter for the U.S. government and came to the U.S. in 2008, was “told he would not be considered for [a position as an Arabic-speaking caseworker] because he is a Muslim,” not a Christian, according to the Seattle Times. Even though World Relief, the agency that rejected Ali, received up to 70 percent of its $32 million budget in 2010 from taxpayer sources, it was completely legal for World Relief to discriminate against Ali for practicing a different religion.  
  • World Vision, a “Christian humanitarian organization” that states on its website that “Christian faith is a prerequisite for employment,” has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government in the past decade to fund projects ranging from international disaster relief to “at-risk youth” programs, including more than $100 million in 2010. Even though World Vision is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, not a church, it has been able to legally fire employees who identified as Christian but denied the “deity of Jesus Christ” and “the doctrine of the Trinity.” World Vision’s president, Richard Stearns, also served on the first Advisory Council to Obama’s faith-based office.

During a campaign stop in Zanesville, Ohio, on July 1, 2008, Obama pledged to end federal funding of such discrimination. “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to the people you help, and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of religion,” Obama said.

But after two years in office, Obama has still not signed an executive order to reverse the Bush-era policy. The president addressed the issue for the first time publicly on Friday, after Amanda Knief, government relations manager for the Secular Coalition for America, asked him about his unfulfilled pledge during a live town hall meeting, where the president defended the status quo.  

“President Obama has given no explanation for his apparent reversal on this issue,” Faircloth said. “In these tough economic times, when it is already hard enough for many people to find work, we strongly urge the president to recommit to his 2008 pledge and sign an executive order that would prohibit federally funded organizations from discriminating against otherwise qualified candidates because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.”

The Secular Coalition was one of dozens of secular and religious organizations affiliated with the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) that joined U.S. Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott and other House members at a June press conference on Capitol Hill to urge Obama to end religious discrimination in hiring and employment.

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