Headstart on Discrimination

Last week, the House Education and the Workforce Committee passed "The School Readiness Act of 2003," H.R. 2210. A Republican-sponsored provision in the bill allows religious organizations receiving government funds to provide Head Start services to discriminate in their hiring practices. If retained in the final version, thousands of Head Start workers could lose their jobs. In addition, hundreds of thousands of parent volunteers who serve as teachers' aides and chaperones could also be displaced.

The controversial exemption in H.R. 2210 is part of an ongoing campaign by the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies to allow faith-based organizations to circumvent state and local civil rights laws by inserting civil rights exemptions into as many pieces of social service legislation as possible.

In late June, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Organizations stuffed a position paper into each Congressperson's mailbox spelling out its position on the "religious hiring rights" of faith-based organizations. Titled "Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations: Why Religious Hiring Rights Must Be Preserved," the position paper argues that religious organizations should be allowed to hire whomever they please regardless of whether they receive government funding.

In what the document characterizes as a "commonsense and fair approach," the Bush administration maintains that despite receiving government funds, religious organizations "should retain their right to hire those individuals who are best able to further their organizations' goals and mission."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contains an exemption that allows churches, mosques and synagogues to hire only members of their faith if they so choose. Last December, President Bush issued an executive order extending this exemption to faith-based organizations that receive government grants.

Congressional Republicans recently added the same type of language to legislation dealing with the Head Start program. The House Education and the Workforce Committee's bill extended the Head Start program for five years. Tucked inside the bill -- which offers several controversial changes to the Head Start program -- is a provision allowing faith-based organizations that receive government funding to discriminate in their hiring practices.

H.R. 2210 could profoundly affect both Head Start workers and volunteers. Workers "could lose their jobs if they fail their employer's religious tests," says the American Civil Liberties Union. And parents, many of whom started as volunteers and became teachers, could "be blocked from climbing the ladder out of poverty."

According to a Press Release by Americans United for Separation of Church & State, the current bill would "permit religious discrimination in staffing of Head Start and jeopardize the positions of thousands of teachers and parent volunteers." Although the Head Start program is not religious in nature, some faith-based organizations provide Head Start services at church-owned facilities.

"This is outrageous," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Head Start is not a religious program, and there is absolutely no reason for this change. Thousands of teachers will have their jobs placed in jeopardy by this proposal, and tens of thousands of children could have their lives disrupted."

"Liberals hate this, but I think most Americans understand the fairness of [the provision] and the appropriateness of that," Andrea Lafferty of the Tradition Values Coalition told Focus on the Family's Family News in Focus. "There are people who hate God. There are people who hate Christians. There are people who hate people of faith and do not want faith-based organizations to be involved in anything."

The Rev. Ronald J. Sider, head of Evangelicals for Social Action, a 3,000-member group that encourages evangelical Christians to work for the poor, told the Washington Post that the White House seems to be making "a more aggressive, vigorous attempt to explain to the public what the situation is and to make the case for religious freedom in hiring. It indicates that they're serious -- and they darn well better be, because it's crucial to a whole lot of us," he said. "I think the administration understands that the very identity of faith-based organizations is at issue in hiring rights.

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