Dec 07, 2011

A coalition of religious and public policy organizations is asking several federal agencies to explain how they handle issues of religious bias in hiring when allocating taxpayer funds to “faith-based” programs.

Federal agencies often award contracts or grants to religious groups to provide social services. Civil rights and civil liberties advocates have argued that faith-based groups that accept public aid should hire staff on the basis of qualification, not belief about religion.

President Barack Obama has stated several times that decisions about this issue are being made on a case-by-case basis, but no other information has been made available. The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), a coalition that represents over 50 organizations, is writing to the agencies to gather more information about their practices.

“The American people have the right to know if taxpayer dollars are subsidizing religious discrimination,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which chairs CARD. “For too long, this issue has been shrouded in secrecy. It’s time to throw open the windows and let some sunshine in.”

Added Lynn, “Faith-based groups that rely on public funds should hire and fire based on qualification, not religion. Americans overwhelmingly oppose job discrimination in government-funded programs.”

The letters were sent today to several federal departments and agencies: Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Corporation for National and Community Services.

The missives note that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised to end hiring bias in taxpayer-funded faith-based programs. But upon taking office, Obama and members of his administration have taken to saying that the issue is being examined on a case-by-case basis.

Joshua Dubois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has stated that these case-by-case reviews involve the White House Counsel, the Department of Justice and the Attorney General’s office.

The CARD letters are designed to determine what, if anything, the agencies are doing in this area.

“More than two years since first announced, however, we know little about these case-by-case reviews,” observes the letter. “Thus, we seek transparency and information regarding the mechanism the Administration uses in these reviews.”

The letters ask agency heads a series of questions, among them:

* What is the process for how the agency begins the “case-by-case” review of an organization that seeks to discriminate on the basis of religion with federal funds?  

* Is there a process for a person who suspects federally funded religious discrimination is taking place to report a potential violation?  

* What offices and components of the agency are involved in the “case-by-case” analysis and what are their roles in the review? 

* What principles and criteria does the agency apply when developing a case for the White House Counsel, Department of Justice and president to review?