President George W. Bush's choice of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general has sparked debate in many quarters. While he is best known for his memos relating to torture and the Geneva Convention, his responses to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee reveal a disturbing perspective on religious discrimination.
As attorney general, Gonzales would be charged with protecting the civil rights of all Americans. Yet his written replies to senators' inquiries reflect lock-step support of the controversial White House line on government funding for religious organizations. He fully supports President Bush's executive order exempting government-subsidized religious groups from some federal anti-discrimination rules.
Using tortured reasoning, Gonzales tried to make publicly subsidized job bias sound like a good thing. He concedes that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination in hiring on the basis of religion. But he notes that Title VII makes an exception for religious organizations, allowing them to use religious criteria in hiring staff. (Nobody thinks federal law should require Methodist churches to hire Zoroastrians as pastors.)
But Gonzales, in keeping with the Bush viewpoint, claims that religious groups retain this special hiring privilege even when they are running programs fully paid for by the taxpayer.
Prior to 2002, he said, Executive Order 11246 "prohibited absolutely the consideration of religion in employment by Federal contractors." This, Gonzales said, failed "to make accommodation" for religious groups. In 2002, the nominee continued, Bush issued Executive Order 13279 extending the special hiring privilege to religious groups that get government grants or contracts.
Said Gonzales, "I agree with the president that the federal government should not discriminate against faith-based organizations or religiously motivated individuals in federal funding and programs, including government contractors. Such groups and persons should be allowed access to federal programs, including federal contracts, on the same basis as all other groups, rather than being singled out due to their religious nature."
But that, of course, is the opposite of what Bush is doing. Under the president's rules, all government contractors, except religious groups, are now forbidden to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. Thus religious groups are not being treated "like all other groups." Rather, they are being given a special right to engage in religious bigotry in employment in taxpayer-funded programs. Nobody was trying to "discriminate against faith-based organizations" before 2002, as Gonzales suggests. Religious groups were just asked to play by the same rules as everyone else. Gonzales' take on all this is Orwellian.
Here's the bottom line: Under the Bush/Gonzales approach, a Jew could be denied employment at a Baptist-run job-training program funded entirely with tax money. A Catholic could be denied a job at a publicly subsidized addiction-counseling center run by a Pentecostal church. A Mormon could be denied work at a Presbyterian-operated senior center paid for by the government. And because congregations are often de facto racially segregated, the administration's approach means people could sometimes be denied jobs on racial grounds.
Thus Gonzales fully supports a presidential move that rolls back civil rights protections that have been in place in the government for decades. He, like the president, takes this perspective even though Congress has declined to give the administration a mandate for the "faith-based" initiative. Americans are left only to wonder if they would be protected by the Justice Department if Gonzales is approved by the Senate for the attorney general's post.
Just as alarming, Congress is scheduled to begin work in the next few weeks on legislation that would advance the "faith-based" agenda. The House is expected to take up the Workforce Investment Act, a measure that would include discriminatory religious groups in its largesse.
Americans who support civil rights and civil liberties have every reason to be concerned about the trends under way in Washington, D.C.