For several years now, Americans United and other groups have spoken out against religious hiring bias in taxpayer-funded “faith-based” programs.
The issue to many people might seem like a legal abstraction. That’s why it’s helpful to occasionally have a human face put on the controversy.
Consider the case of Saad Mohammad Ali, a Washington state resident who volunteered for the evangelical Christian agency World Relief for six months.
Ali would seem a perfect fit for World Relief. The agency was helping resettle Iraqi refugees in America, and Ali speaks both Arabic and English. He has been a refugee himself once and worked for the U.S. government as an interpreter. He is familiar with the cultures of both nations.
Ali was therefore excited when he heard about an opening for an Arabic-speaking caseworker at World Relief. He applied for the job, but his expectations turned to disappointment when World Relief officials informed him he would not be considered.
The reason? Ali is a Muslim. World Relief hires only evangelical Christians. Ali is left to plug away at his current job – handling baggage at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
If World Relief were funded with private donations, its hiring policies would probably generate little controversy. But like many other faith-based charities, World Relief gets most of its money these days courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.
Reported the Seattle Times, “Grounded in evangelical faith, the Baltimore-based organization receives up to 70 percent of its funding from government sources, with the rest from private donors, including churches seeking assurances that the religious values of those carrying out the agency’s work are similar to their own.”
World Relief staff in the Seattle area thought highly of Ali and asked the national office for an exemption. Group officials said no.
The experience has left Ali with some bitterness.
“I’ve heard over and over again that in the U.S. discrimination in any form is not accepted,” he said. “So it was a disappointment.”
Meanwhile, officials with Catholic Charities of Washington, D.C., have begun requiring new employees to sign a statement promising that they will not “violate the principles or tenets” of the Catholic Church.
It’s a sweeping statement – one that would allow Catholic Charities to dismiss employees for virtually any infraction of church rules, from failure to attend religious services and using artificial contraceptives to cohabitation and publicly criticizing church leaders.
Yet Catholic Charities, like World Relief, depends heavily on tax dollars to meet its budget.
When President Barack Obama flip-flopped on faith-based initiatives and announced that he would examine the issue of hiring bias on a case-by-case basis, many of us who support church-state separation were disappointed.
Yet we have been patient, believing that when examples of religious bias in tax-funded programs surfaced, the White House would be forced to act.
Well, here are two prime examples. They are crying out for a determination. It is time for the White House and/or the U.S. Justice Department to act. The answer they must give is obvious: Religious discrimination should have no place in taxpayer-funded programs.