Keep the Faith, but Why Keep the Discrimination?

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Were faith-based groups among the intended beneficiaries of the federal stimulus program? According to Politico, at least $140 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was funneled to faith-based groups. This didn’t occur by happenstance, but resulted from an unpublicized initiative of the Obama Administration that involved “federal officials [who] sometimes stepped in when the state officials who distribute the money were reluctant to spend it on groups associated with churches and other religious establishments.”

It is a striking anomaly. The highly secular Obama Administration, excoriated so often by conservatives as insufficiently faith-oriented, has made a concerted effort to ensure that a large portion of stimulus moneys go to religious organizations—sometimes over the recalcitrance of state and local government officials. Did the Obama Administration surreptitiously transform itself into the willing albeit closeted inheritor and implementer of the faith-based initiatives of the Bush Administration? And has his inaction implicitly given the green light to groups like World Vision to practice faith-based discrimination-in-hiring practices using Federal money?

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If the executive order of November 17 announcing revisions to the faith-based program it inherited from the Bush Administration is any indication, the Obama Administration does not intend to digress from the Bush faith-based path – and it might be ducking the most critical unresolved issue on the docket, the widespread concern about religious discrimination in hiring by federally funded faith-based service providers.

The Obama Administration has had two years to make changes in the Bush Administration’s federal faith-based program apparatus. Although President Bush’s flagship faith-based program, the Compassion Capital Fund, was ended by Congress and the Administration in 2009, Obama continued the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and asked a faith-based advisory committee to weigh in with changes to the program.

The recent executive order detailed recommended changes in how the federal government would relate to faith-based contractors. The order was welcomed by many religious groups for its clarification of issues such as telling potential program clients about secular service alternatives and separating religious activities from social services.

Even a stalwart critic of the Bush era program, the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, applauded the Administration’s decision to require federal agencies to provide secular alternatives for people who don't want to get their services at a religious charity.  He was less happy that the Administration allowed federal funding to go directly to churches, synagogues, and mosques and permitted religious charities to display religious paraphernalia in their facilities except in those parts where they specifically delivered the federally funded program services.

To nearly everyone’s dismay, however – from Rev. Lynn to Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, and spokespersons for the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of the Reform branch of Judaism – the President’s order sidestepped, for the moment, the contentious issue of whether federally funded religious charities can discriminate in their hiring based on religious belief, something that Lynn says Obama promised to end during this presidential campaign.

To hear what the Administration intended in the executive order and where the recommendations came from, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) held a hearing on "Faith-BasedInitiatives: Recommendations of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Basedand Community Partnerships and Other Current Issues" on November 18. Unfortunately, the White House decided not to send any officials from the faith-based office or any other Executive Branch office to attend much less testify. Chairman Conyers was, to put it mildly, nonplussed that the White House would issue its proposed changes to standards for contracting with faith-based organizations and not send anyone to Congress to explain.

Why release this statement more than two full years into the administration with no Congressional input from Obama Administration allies – and on the heels of the disastrous November 2 midterm results? Perhaps it was a post-election strategy to overcome and allay critics’ questions about the President’s religious affiliation and beliefs..

The President's religion became a matter of debate during the 2010 elections. Some people intimated that President Obama is a closet Muslim, despite declaring himself a Christian and having attended a Christian church in Chicago as an adult (like most Americans, Obama doesn't appear to be a particularly regular church-goer). The secret-Muslim charge feels similar to the birthers’ contention that President Obama was not born in the U.S.; no matter what Obama says, his explanations aren’t enough to mollify his critics.

Nonetheless, Obama’s speeches in the run-up to the midterm elections seemed to contain plenty of distinctively religious references, with hints of the currently fashionable American exceptionalism that God somehow favors the United States. The executive order’s clarification of some of the rules for providing funding to faith-based contractors, most of which are Christian, may have been intended to help shore up the Administration’s credentials with the faith-based community in preparation for an election juiced by the Tea Party movement, one-third of which leans Christian evangelical.

But the fulcrum around which supporters and opponents of federal funding of faith-based groups divide, is the issue of faith-based hiring, the missing topic of the executive order. That may be why the director of the White House's faith-based office, Rev. Joshua DuBois, dodged the hearing, to sidestep having to answer questions about the faith-based contractors discriminating in their hiring based on religion. The White House explained blowing off the Conyers hearing by saying that its reconsideration of the discrimination-in-hiring issue is on a different track. That statement was generally seen as unpersuasive.

Speaking at the House hearing was the chief legal officer of World Vision, an organization that sits on President Obama's faith-based program advisory committee. identifies some $447 million in grants and contracts including earmarks that have gone to World Vision since around 2003. World Vision is a significant USAID contractor and requires the staff it hires with those funds, both here and overseas, to share the organization’s core Christian beliefs.

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World Vision’s right to a policy of discrimination-in-hiring with government money had been affirmed in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision this past August. In Spencer v. World Vision(pdf), three employees, including two who had worked for World Vision for as long as ten years without incident, were abruptly terminated. Although they had originally submitted statements about their personal relationship with Jesus in order to get their jobs, World Vision later discovered that they supposedly denied the deity of Jesus and the concept of the Holy Trinity, a violation of the organization’s personnel policies. The organization’s dismissal of the three staffers has a "don't ask, don't tell" feel to it – had no one revealed that Sylvia Spencer, the lead plaintiff, and her colleagues were not believers, they might still be working for the World Vision to this day.

To be hired by the organization, World Vision employees have to agree with the World Vision "Statement of Faith" and/or the "Apostles Creed," which, for readers who don't know, read as follows:

Statement of Faith

  • We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
  • We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
  • We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, regeneration of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
  • We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
  • We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
  • We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Apostles' Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. AMEN.

The Appeals Court ruled that because World Vision is a "primarily religious" organization, it should be permitted to hire only Christians who subscribe to these principles, even its employees who are paid for by government contract or grant funds (World Vision says that it doesn't proselytize with its government funding despite its religious tenets).

Most people probably don't know that an entity receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver services on behalf of the U.S. government requires an affirmation of Christian beliefs of this specificity. Without reading the Statement and the Creed, the American public might logically think that the employment “discrimination” is limited to asking potential applicants if they believe in general Christian principles such as “faith, hope, and charity” as stated in the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthiansin the New Testament—and not whether they believed in the concept of the Holy Trinity articulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. as promoted by Athanasius (backed by Emperor Constantine), or held to the pre-Nicene view of the uniqueness of God as articulated by his theological rival Arius. Even for practicing Christians, some inquiries like these as conditions of employment might feel like abject invasions of privacy.

We would guess that the White House’s decision to not send staff from the faith-based office was meant to avoid having to answer the questions of Congressman Conyers and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (the chair of the subcommittee that held the hearing) about the desire of faith-based groups to continue their ability to discriminate with federal moneys and the White House’s position of looking the other way. In the context of the $140 million in stimulus funds given to faith-based providers, probably no one knows whether they might have hired new staff that were required to sign off on their religious beliefs. With the stimulus pressure to spend and hire quickly, it is possible that some niceties around the firewall between church and state have been breached. Nonetheless, the issue of discrimination-in-hiring with government funds based on religious belief merits a clear and fully informed public debate, not a position from the White House that says to Congress, don't ask us about religious hiring and we won't tell you.