28 Oct 2008

CFI Issues Statement on Religious Discrimination Exemption

The Center for Inquiry expressed outrage at the public release of a memorandum from U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that would allow participants in the Bush Administration’s Faith-Based Initiatives programs to engage in discriminatory hiring practices, in contravention of long-established federal civil rights laws. The memorandum exempts World Vision—a religious organization receiving federal grant monies under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act—from the religious nondiscrimination provisions that help preserve the separation of church and state.

On Oct. 17, the New York Times reported that the newly disclosed legal memorandum claims that taxpayer money can be diverted directly to sectarian faith groups that actively discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring practices, bypassing laws that distinctly forbid that very practice.

Section 3789 of U.S. Code Title 42 Chapter 46 states, (emphasis added):

No person in any State shall on the ground of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under or denied employment in connection with any programs or activity funded in whole or in part with funds made available under this chapter.

But World Vision, claiming that hiring non-Christians would somehow impede its goal of helping youths escape gang culture, has received an exemption to the law. Citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the O.L.C. memorandum claims that requiring the exclusionary Christian group to adhere to the antidiscrimination law would “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion, and that “…exempt(ing) World Vision from the religious nondiscrimination requirement…” would be “…the least restrictive means of furthering (a) compelling governmental interest.”

Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s President and CEO, objected strongly to the memorandum’s contents.

“By distorting the concept of religious freedom, the Department of Justice has enabled the Administration to deny true religious freedom. As a result of its aggressive, flawed, and harmful reading of the law, individuals will be denied employment based on their religious beliefs. Nothing in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act negates the applicability of federal civil rights statutes. Every recipient of government funding must obey the law, including recipients that happen to be religious,” commented Lindsay. “Freedom of religion does not include the freedom to break the law.”

Derek C. Araujo, an attorney for CFI, lamented that this issue is yet another part of a larger pattern of the government giving special legal exemptions to religions, and that this a clear illustration of how the rule of law is getting sacrificed, yet again, in the name of piety.

“This provides one more example of how infusing politics with religion distorts our thinking about important public policy issues—in this case, protecting long-cherished civil rights,” Araujo said. “It is stunning that this Administration thinks that enforcing civil rights laws is not a ‘compelling interest.’”

In defense of the religion-based initiative movement, its architect, University of Missouri law professor Carl H. Esbeck, was quoted in the Times asking why World Vision should “be denied the opportunity that everyone else has to compete for funding simply because of their religion.” But the spin he gives this narrow interpretation of civil rights legality ignores the question of why other citizens who want to help dispel gang violence should be denied the opportunity to be hired simply because of their religious convictions, as well as the larger question of why religious recipients of government funds should be privileged by exemptions to federal antidiscrimination laws that apply to non-religious recipients.

The 58-year-old World Vision, which boasts action in more than 100 countries, also goes far beyond the basic spiritual alignments required of such religious exclusionists as the Boy Scouts of America—who simply ask for a vague affirmation of belief in God—and has very stringent rules regarding the specific mandated beliefs of employees.

From World Vision’s Web site, (emphasis original):

The status of World Vision U.S. as an equal opportunity employer does not prevent the organization from hiring staff based on their religious beliefs, so that all staff share the same religious commitment. Pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 702 (42 U.S.C. 2000e 1(a) World Vision U.S. has the right to, and does, hire only candidates who agree with World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is the unbending backbone of Catholic dogma, and the cited Statement of Faith mirrors its tenets with the addition of passages maintaining that the Bible is the only infallible, authoritative word of God; that the “lost” will be inevitably resurrected and sent to eternal damnation; and insinuations that the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit is necessary for a person to live a decent and respectable life.

On Oct. 19, the Washington Post reported that Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision’s U.S. operations, brushed off complaints of special treatment for Christians—who dominate the U.S. political landscape—citing “that a waiver from the anti-discrimination provisions in grants could apply to Jewish, Hindu and Muslim groups, as well.”

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