By Nate Hennagin
Last Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing titled "Oversight Hearing on the Department of Justice," at which Attorney General Eric Holder was the sole witness. Committee members questioned him on the actions of the Department of Justice, ranging from homeland security and interrogation techniques, to gun control.
But one member in particular, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), questioned Holder on an issue that doesn’t get a lot of press these days—the Faith-Based Initiative. As AU has often reported, we have been extremely disappointed that the Obama Administration has done nothing to overturn the Bush Administration policies that permit religious organizations to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion even when the positions are funded with taxpayer money. Rep. Scott, after alluding to then-candidate Obama’s 2008 speech in Zanesville, OH opposing federally funded religious hiring discrimination, asked Holder:
"Is it possible in this administration today for someone to apply for a federal grant and articulate an intention to discriminate against people of people of particular religions? For example, you know, they don't want to hire Catholics, Jews and Muslims, would they be entitled to a lot…of federal programs?"
Holder answered that the Administration doesn't "want to be in a position where people are in fact getting federal grants and discriminating." He followed up explaining that the Administration "do[es]n't want to do that. We try not to do that" and that "[t]he attempt we make is not to do that." He didn’t admit, however, that the answer is yes—current policy permits federally funded religious discrimination.
Holder went on to admit that the Justice Department is "not in the process of reconsidering" a 2007 memo from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that asserts that religious organizations can engage in federally funded religious discrimination, even when the federal statute governing the money forbids such discrimination. This is disappointing news, as AU, along with the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), has been urging the Administration to review and overturn this memo.
During a hearing in the Education and Workforce Committee later that week, Rep. Scott initiated a similar line of questioning with Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Kathleen Sebelius.
SCOTT:Madam Secretary, just a quick…question. Is it possible for any sponsors of programs run in your department private organizations to get grants to run…programs, to discriminate based on religion that is to say you would have been a good applicant for this job but we don't hire people of your religion? Is that possible?SEBELIUS:To my knowledge, that would violate the civil rights umbrella that we operate under, Congressman.SCOTT:So that just says faith-based organization, we're running a program and said we don't hire Catholics, Jews or Muslims, you wouldn't think they could get funded under you administration do you?SEBELIUS:To my knowledge, no.
Even Secretary Sebelius appeared to recognize that the policy of permitting federally funded religious hiring discrimination is wrong and assumed that it would violate HHS policy. Yet, because the Administration has taken no action to overturn this policy, such discrimination is, indeed, sanctioned at HHS.
We appreciate Rep. Scott’s long time commitment to this issue and his continued attempts to prompt President Obama to uphold the promises that he made in Zanesville in July of 2008:
"Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea - so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, 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. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work."