The following is cross-posted at On Faith
Speculation is as rampant as opinions are diverse regarding a final decision on the legality of religious discrimination in hiring practices funded by government money. As President Obama elaborated his vision of a faith-based and community partnership, supporters of the program debated whether to expand or narrow civil rights guarantees among recipients of “faith-based” funds.
I was a bit surprised and more than a little perplexed when I read Jim Wallis’ published comments on this issue this past Thursday. The leader of Sojourners, downplayed the significance of the hiring issue, indicating it came up only once in transition meetings. According to Jim, poverty, human trafficking and the Middle East were discussed in much more detail. That certainly was not my experience. Since December of 2008, I was in numerous meetings with the Obama Transition Team both singularly as president of Interfaith Alliance and as a member of a broad-based coalition that works on issues of religious liberty. Literally, I never was in a meeting of the faith-based office in which non-discrimination laws were not discussed.
Please make no mistake about the importance of this provision in the new office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. If sectarian organizations are using their own money, they have every right to employ only persons committed to their religion. However, if taxpayers are funding a program, that program should reflect our nation’s historic commitment to civil rights.
I appreciate the good work Jim Wallis does and his desire to do more, but ultimately we swap a temporary good for a long-lasting problem if we do not establish safeguards in hiring practices and direct funding of faith based groups. I agree with Jim on the importance of eradicating poverty, fostering inter-religious cooperation, and a number of other goals. But we must not weaken the Constitution that serves as the strong foundation for protecting the integrity of religion and the vitality of democracy.
The executive order signed by the president gives authority to the director of this new partnership to work with the White House Council and the Department of Justice to deal with any legal concerns regarding hiring practices. My discussions with administration officials indicate they are taking this issue very seriously. I hope that my friend Rev. Wallis will do the same.