Mukasey Misstep?: Attorney General Says No To Religious Discrimination

Bush and his backers in the Religious Right have insisted that houses of worship and other religious groups should be able to take tax dollars under the 'faith-based' initiative and still discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff.

What's up with Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey? Yesterday Mukasey testified before the House Judiciary Committee. It was a general hearing about oversight, and most of the questions dealt with torture, water-boarding and so on.

But at one point, U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) asked a question on another topic.

Scott asked, "In terms of discrimination, if there is a prohibition against discrimination for federal contractors, are there any circumstances when it would be OK for a federal contractor to tell someone that they should not get a job solely because of their religion – in a federal contract?"

Mukasey replied, "As you describe it, there shouldn't be. The question is whether there's legislation that addresses that in a way that then doesn't require a court to make distinctions that it isn't really equipped to make...between what is or isn't a religious affiliation or what is or isn't a religion...."

Scott responded, "I'm sorry. We have discrimination laws on the books. Should it be legal for somebody to say, with federal money, you can't get a job solely because of your religion?"

Responded Mukasey, "It should not."

Really? This has not been the line the Bush administration has been pursuing for the past seven years. Bush and his backers in the Religious Right have insisted that houses of worship and other religious groups should be able to take tax dollars under the "faith-based" initiative and still discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff.

The Bush gang even tried to extend this principle to Head Start, the popular pre-school program that offers services to low-income children and their families. Under the Bush plan, religious groups that sponsor Head Start would have had the legal right to fire (or refuse to hire) people deemed the "wrong" religion – even though Head Start is by law a non-sectarian program.

Bush and his backers even proposed extending this concept to people who volunteer at Head Start programs. In other words, your own child could be attending Head Start, yet you would be denied the opportunity to read stories or serve snacks there solely because of where you worship (or don't).

Thankfully, Congress rejected this offensive scheme. But Bush and other faith-based boosters keep pushing it in other social service bills. Religious Right groups are on board with the plan, insisting they have a religious freedom right to discriminate with your tax dollars.

There is no such right. Religious groups can run privately funded programs as they see fit. But when they're sponsoring a program for the public good with money taken from the public treasury, absolutely no discrimination should be allowed. Permitting it is an offense to our values.

It's great that Rep. Scott asked this question – and Mukasey's response was the right one. I have to wonder how long it will be before he is forced to retract it.