The Common Good

Discrimination in Services -- No. Protection of Faith Identity -- Yes

This post responds to the following question posed on The Washington Post's "On Faith" forum: Dozens of major religious groups and denominations are urging Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to renounce a Bush-era memo that allows faith-based charities that receive federal funding to discriminate in hiring. Should religious charities that receive federal grant money be allowed to discriminate in hiring?

The question is wrongly asked. It should have been asked like this: Should religious organizations be allowed to hire people of their own faith tradition and persuasion in order to maintain their identity? To that, my answer is yes. Nobody likes the word "discriminate," nor wants to do it. And faith-based providers of social services should never "discriminate" in who is receiving their services, nor should they demand religious requirements or commitments for those services. When it comes to offering our compassion and comfort, we should be adamant in our "non-discrimination." The government should be extremely vigilant in making sure that no discrimination in services is occurring, especially if the faith-based organization is receiving any public funds in the provision of those services. But service provision is not the same thing as hiring.

The first is what you do as a religious obligation -- for any and all who have need, regardless of racial identity, religious preferences, or whether they have any religious commitments at all. The second is what you need to do in order to preserve your distinctive religious identity. Think about it: should Lutheran World Relief not be allowed to hire fellow Lutherans, The Jewish Federation their fellow Jews, or Catholic Charities their fellow Catholics? Should World Vision or the Salvation Army be forced to abandon their statements of faith when it comes to hiring key people? What would be the result of such a government prohibition against hiring "co-religionists," especially for key leadership positions in faith-based organizations -- except for the gradual and eventual diminishing of the faith identity and purpose that makes these organizations unique in the first place.

To do what they do, faith organizations must maintain their identity. To be forced to surrender that identity by the government would result, over time, in faith-based organizations no longer being able to provide the services they now do with the same ethos and purpose, which is central to their value as a partner to government. Indeed, many faith organizations, when faced with the choice between maintaining their faith identity or their government funding, would give up the latter -- which would cause a radical disruption in key and historically effective public partnerships with the faith community.

This time of economic crisis and growing human need is no time to lose those critical partnerships. We are at a moment when we need, as President Obama has said, "all hands on deck." Judicial and historical precedent has consistently upheld a religious "exemption" from otherwise good and necessary civil rights legislation when it comes to preserving the religious "identity" of the organization. For a religious organization to "discriminate" on the basis of race or gender, for example, should be illegal; to adhere to hiring policies that protect their identity is not "discrimination" -- but the proper protection of both mission and purpose.

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