Congressional Subcommittee Holds Hearing on the Faith-Based Initiative

By Nate Hennagin

On November 18, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the Faith-Based Initiative. As we reported, AU’s own Barry Lynn testified at the hearing along with Professor Douglas Laycock and Professor Melissa Rogers, who also served as chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

AU has long opposed the Faith-Based Initiative. Since it began under the Bush Administration, it has been used to funnel public money into religious organizations without adequate safeguards to prevent proselytizing and has permitted these religious organizations to discriminate in employment on the basis of religion. We had been urging Congress to hold an oversight hearing as a way to hold the Obama Administration accountable for not making changes to these policies. Finally, just one day before the hearing (and likely prompted by the hearing), President Obama signed a new Executive Order that made changes to the Bush-era Faith-Based Initiative.

This new Executive Order made some significant changes by adopting the consensus recommendations of the White House Faith-Based Council; however AU was disappointed that it left many problematic policies in place. Even under the new Executive Order, public funds may still go directly to houses of worship and faith-based charities may display religious signs and scriptures in the rooms where they perform federally funded social service programs. And, most troubling is that the issue of hiring discrimination by organizations that receive federal funds was completely ignored.

As a result of the issuance of the Executive Order the day before, the Subcommittee hearing focused mainly on the hiring discrimination, which was the key issue that the Executive Order did not address. Many Representatives participated in the hearing, including Subcommittee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Ranking Member Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), full Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). Most who spoke agreed with us and expressed their opposition to the current policy that permits federally funded religious discrimination and criticized the Administration for taking no action to overturn the policy. In addition, Members of the Subcommittee expressed their dissatisfaction that the Administration did not provide a witness for the hearing.

This hearing was a big success for Americans United, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), and other organizations that oppose the Faith-Based Initiative. The hearing pushed the Obama Administration to finally make some changes through Executive Order and adopt many of the Council’s consensus recommendations, as well as provide an opportunity for Congress to scrutinize the constitutional and civil rights implications.

To see Rep. Bobby Scott’s opening statement click here.

To view the entire hearing, click here (Barry’s opening statement is 39 minutes in).