June 2007 Church & State | Featured

As the House of Representatives pre­pared to deliberate reauthorizing Head Start this spring, the Bush administration wasted no time weighing in on a burning question: Should participants in the publicly funded program be permitted to engage in religious discrimination when hiring staff and approving volunteers?

Not surprisingly, the White House answered with a resounding, “Yes!” To make matters worse, the administration insisted that granting faith-based groups a right to hire and fire based on religious criteria in a taxpayer-supported program protects religious freedom.

The House, however, had other ideas. In a vote that may signal a new political climate for the Bush “faith-based” initiative, the effort to allow religious discrimination in Head Start programs failed 222-195 on May 2.

The vote was seen as an important test of the strength of advocates of faith-based initiatives in the Democratic-controlled Congress. When Head Start, a popular program that serves low-income children and their families, came up for reauthorization, Republicans vowed to add an amendment to repeal a 35-year-old non-discrimination provision in order to allow religious groups that sponsor it to make hiring decisions – and even screen parent volunteers – on the basis of religion.

The Head Start reauthorization bill (H.R. 1429, the Improving Head Start Act of 2007) became a battleground for faith-based amendments early on. During deliberations in the House Education and Labor Committee, U.S. Rep. Luis Fortuño (R-Puerto Rico) offered an amendment allowing Head Start programs to engage in religious discrimination. That failed on a party line vote, and the bill passed the committee by a bipartisan vote of 42-1. Undaunted, Fortuño and his backers vowed to offer the amendment on the floor of the House as well.

Democrats countered that the amendment was unnecessary and bigoted. Al­though some Head Start programs are operated by faith-based organizations, the program is tax funded and does not include religious content. It serves families of many different faiths and none.

Faith-based groups are not excluded from Head Start. In fact, the program re­portedly serves as the second-largest source of federal funds for religiously affiliated organizations. These groups have operated programs for years while abiding by the non-discrimination requirements. Not a single faith-based Head Start provider is on record asking for the right to discriminate.

Staff members at Americans United’s Legislative De­part­ment were all-too familiar with the issue. Twice in recent years the House has approved religious discrimination in Head Start. Although those provisions never made it through the Senate, AU wanted to strike an early blow against religious discrimination in the House version of the bill.

Americans United quickly sprung into action. Working with allied groups in the Coalition Against Religious Discrimi­na­tion (CARD), AU staffers rallied opposition to the amendment.

Key players in the debate were the more than 40 new House members who had no history of dealing with the issue. AU coordinated efforts to educate these members and explain to them why Head Start programs should not promote religious discrimination in any form. Critical to the effort was the assistance of U.S. Reps. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) and Chet Edwards (D-Texas), both of whom personally approached new House members to educate them about the issue.

 One of the nation’s most familiar anti-poverty initiatives, Head Start serves more than 900,000 children and their families all over America. It seeks parental involvement by encouraging volunteering and for 35 years has contained a provision barring hiring discrimination on the basis of race, sex or religion.

Under the Fortuño proposal, Head Start staff and parent vol­unteers could have been kicked out of the program – even if their children were taking part in it – for being the “wrong” religion.

Religious Right groups desperately tried to rally their base to support the Fortuño amendment. In one e-mail alert, Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, asserted, “The cry of ‘discrimination’ is ridiculous. A Jewish group running a Head Start program shouldn’t be expected to hire a Wiccan as an employee. A Muslim Head Start program shouldn’t be forced to hire a Jewish person. A Christian-run group should be free to hire Christians.”

Opponents pointed out that there is no such thing as “Jewish Head Start” or “Christian Head Start.” There is only Head Start. The program, which often operates in conjunction with public schools, is legally non-sectarian. Head Start programs do sometimes occupy space in houses of worship, but that does not make them religious. The program serves children on the basis of their socio-economic status, not their family’s views about religion. Since Head Start does not include religious content, program defenders argued, there is no need for a church that houses a program to subject the staff to a religious litmus test.

AU and its allies pointed out that the Head Start community does not favor religious discrimination in the program.

“We are greatly concerned that removing civil rights protections for employees could have a negative impact on the children and families who participate in these programs,” wrote Sarah M. Greene, president of the National Head Start Asso­ciation, in an April 20 letter to Congress.

The civil rights community also opposed the amendment, with national groups like the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights speaking out against it. Many religious groups opposed the measure as well, including the Episcopal Church USA, General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers).

Nevertheless, the Bush administration was determined to ram the amendment through to advance its faith-based crusade and to please its Religious Right allies. (Ironically, many of these groups don’t even support Head Start. TV preacher Pat Robertson once blasted the program as wasteful, dismissing concerns over the fate of at-risk kids by saying, “If you’re smart, you’ll catch up anyway.”)

The amendment came up for a vote on a procedural maneuver called a “motion to recommit,” with debate taking up the greater part of an afternoon.

Opponents did not hold their rhetorical fire. During debate, Rep. Scott asserted, “[I]f we pass this, we will take action and turn the clock back to 1965.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) echoed that concern, remarking, “No citizen should have to pass a religious test to qualify for a publicly funded job.”

The victory in the House, although important, does not mean the fight is over. The bill now moves to the Senate, where the Bush administration and its Religious Right allies are expected to press anew for a religious discrimination provision.

In addition, Bush has taken the extraordinary step of opposing the entire bipartisan bill if it does not allow faith-based Head Start centers to hire and fire on the basis of religion. The administration has made it clear that leaving the measure out could jeopardize enactment of the bill.

Observers say Bush may be bluffing – Head Start is a popular program with a high degree of participant satisfaction and vetoing it would be unprecedented – but members of AU’s legislative team aren’t taking any chances. They and members of the CARD coalition will be working overtime to educate senators about the dangers of allowing religious discrimination in a publicly funded program.

“This was a gratifying win in the House,” said Aaron Schuham, AU’s director of legislative affairs. “But our work is not done. We must press on to the Senate to make certain that Head Start remains free of taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.”