At last week’s town hall meeting at the University of Maryland, President Obama was asked a question that he probably wasn’t expecting. Amanda Knief, Government Relations Manager for the Secular Coalition for America, demanded to know why Obama hasn’t rescinded the controversial executive order that allows some faith-based organizations that receive federal funding to discriminate against non-believers in their hiring practices. Obama, perhaps because he was caught off-guard, did not have a good answer.
His response was convoluted, but here’s the gist. ”It’s very straightforward that people shouldn’t be discriminated against for race, gender, sexual orientation, and – or religious affiliation,” Obama said. “What has happened is, is that there has been a carve-out, dating back to President Clinton’s presidency, for religious organizations in their hiring for particular purposes … If you have set up a non-profit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, you have to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices. On the other hand, if it’s closer to your core functions … then you might have more leeway to hire someone who is of that religious faith … I think we’ve struck the right balance so far.”
Which is to say, Obama dodged the question. The issue is what religious organizations that receive federal funding do with taxpayers’ money. Private organizations can legally discriminate in hiring based on religion as long as the position has to do with its core functioning (i.e., it can discriminate in hiring clergy, but not in cleaning staff), but clearly, it’s unconstitutional for religious organizations to use federal dollars to fund discriminatory activities.
While he was on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama endorsed faith-based organizations but said that those organizations which performed discriminatory activities should be forced to either give up the discrimination or renounce federal money. He now seems reluctant to rescind the executive order. The reasoning behind this is obvious: he doesn’t want to anger supporters who want to retain these discriminatory hiring practices. But in practice, the policy allows organizations that are not churches to discriminate against non-believers. For example, as Sarah Pozner points out on Religion Dispatches,
An organization like World Vision, for example, is not a church but a 501(c)(3); it receives federal funding. Its president, Richard Strearns (who also served on the first Advisory Council to Obama’s faith-based office) has long argued that his and other organizations should be able to discriminate against employees, and it has fired employees who denied the “deity of Jesus Christ” and “the doctrine of the Trinity.” Last year, World Vision received over $100 million in federal dollars.
What do you think? Is Obama “striking the right balance,” or should he rescind the executive order?
Photo from nmfbihop via flickr.