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Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy Headshot

The Time is Now to Stop Faith-Based Hiring Discrimination

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Seventy years ago this week, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 marking the first time a president took steps to ensure equal employment opportunity in federal defense contracts -- affirming that an individual's race, color, religion or national origin should not deny that individual an equal employment opportunity in federal defense contracts. Across 70 years, almost every president has expanded and reaffirmed the nondiscrimination principles of Roosevelt's Executive Order.

President Lyndon B. Johnson took the next big step in advancing the equal opportunity provision FDR started in a limited way to protect both faith and freedom, by applying it across the spectrum of all federal contracts, covering nearly one fifth of the U.S. workforce through executive order 11246. However, in December of 2002 President George W. Bush simultaneously issued Executive Order 13279 to enact his Faith-Based Initiative and with a stroke of a pen, eroded 60 years of civil rights history by exempting religious organizations from the prohibition on religious employment discrimination by federal contractors. At the time, I decried the action as a major step backwards in the government's guarantee that equal opportunity would always accompany funding provided by taxpayers' dollars. Today, I find it hard to believe that regressive civil rights policy still stands allowing federally-funded religious organizations to hire and fire workers solely on the basis of their religion -- a practice that I view as an affront to the United States Constitution.

Our First Amendment and civil rights laws have always protected the integrity of religious organizations to make staffing decisions in line with their respective faiths and values. I support and defend their religious freedom to do so. But this freedom, this right, should not stand when government money comes into play. Federal financing changes the rules. In this nation not a single tax dollar should ever be used to support religious discrimination. This is one of the many reasons I encourage religious charities not to take government funds. Boundaries established by federal funding are mutually beneficial for institutions of religion and institutions of government and reflective of our historic commitment to both religious freedom and civil rights guarantees.

In July 2008, at a now infamous campaign stop in Zanesville, Ohio, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama affirmed that he would reform the Faith-Based Initiative so that "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion." To date, true to his word, President Obama has taken several positive steps in reforming his predecessor's Faith-Based Initiative, steps which I was honored to help shape as a member of the Task Force charged by the President with reforming his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Yet, despite these welcome changes, the all-important issue of civil rights protections to guarantee no employment discrimination in federally funded programs remains unaddressed. I sincerely hope that President Obama's campaign-stated commitment to preventing such discrimination has not wavered though, I must admit, I am disappointed not to have seen evidence that this is the case.

Mr. President, it has been three years since your pledge in Zanesville, Ohio. Along with others, I appreciate the many good steps that have been taken by your administration in a thoughtful way to reform the Faith-Based Initiative. The reality is, however, that there is not one policy difference in regulation or statute that has been implemented to reform this unfortunate component of President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative. Far too much time has passed, almost nine years, since then President Bush signed his executive order undermining the civil rights protections in federal contracts. Two-and-a-half years into your presidency we are still waiting for improvements that bring this Faith-Based Initiative in closer conformity to the Constitution. Mr. President, it is time to restore religious freedom protections in federal contracts. I urge you, please, honor this historic anniversary by restoring the civil rights protections that began 70 years ago this week. As you know well and we all understand, 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.

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance. He was a member of President Obama's taskforce on the reform of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.