Written by Mr. Max Schechter. Max is a rising sophomore at Cornell University and is interning at Interfaith Alliance summer 2011. He is also a participant in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Machon Kaplan program.
On Tuesday I attended an exciting press conference and briefing organized to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, also called the Fair Employment Act. This Executive Order ended hiring discrimination based on, “race, creed, color, or national origin” by government defense contractors and was an historic advancement for civil rights and religious liberty. However, this is far from mere history. Issues of employment discrimination and indeed executive orders are important today. Although presidents since FDR have renewed and expanded the prohibitions on hiring discrimination, including President Lyndon Johnson who protected citizens from hiring discrimination in all government contracts, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13279 which allows religious organizations the ability to discriminate in hiring even if they receive government funding—and unfortunately that executive order stands today.
The fight to end taxpayer-funded discrimination is central to our work to protect religious freedom and to that effect, Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance and host of State of Belief, wrote an op-ed in which he urged the President to
“honor this historic anniversary by restoring the civil rights protections that began 70 years ago this week…this action will not infringe upon the right of religious groups to discriminate in whom they hire; and federal money will, not a moment too soon, stop being used to sponsor discrimination.”
Also, more than 50 groups (including Interfaith Alliance) wrote a letter to President Obama which was sent to the White House the morning of the press conference, calling his attention to this important issue.
Speakers at the press conference included Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), leaders in the religious community like Rabbi David Saperstein and Rev. Dr. Paul Brown, as well as civil rights advocates and scholars. Every speaker emphasized how groundbreaking this executive order was by offering the protection of the federal government to the victims of employment discrimination. The panel praised the successful efforts of A. Phillip Randolph and other civil rights leaders who persuaded FDR to sign that executive order 70 years ago.
The idea of taxpayers supporting jobs that they might themselves be denied because of their race, religion, or national origin was a concern at the briefing. It is a shame that legal hiring discrimination has persisted under the Obama administration. The panel’s statements encouraged President Obama to take action to prevent this discrimination, as he promised he would while campaigning in Zanesville, Ohio.
As a witness to the press conference and briefing, I was inspired by the coalition of different faiths and sincere efforts of members of congress. Although I came away realizing the obstacles non-discriminatory hiring has, I was also reminded of what A. Phillip Randolph had to organize and that working towards equality and liberty is always worthwhile.
For more on the faith-based initiative under President Obama, check out these State of Belief episodes: Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism assesses year one of the Obama faith-based initiative. Sandhya Bathija, communications associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, discusses two recent cases of hiring discrimination by religious charities. (Please note, these are extended versions of the interviews originally broadcast nationwide.)