More than 100 religious organizations are urging members of Congress to reject pending legislation that would prohibit them from considering religion when hiring.
A letter – endorsed by such groups as World Vision, Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops, and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – was delivered Wednesday.
"The law has long protected the religious freedom of both the people who receive government-funded services, and the groups that provide the services – long before President Obama, and long before President Bush," said Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel of USCCB, in a statement. "Stripping away the religious hiring rights of religious service providers violates the principle of religious freedom, and represents bad practice in the delivery of social services."
The groups are protesting a provision in HR 5466 – a bill introduce in the House in May that would reauthorize federal substance abuse treatment funding that is administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the bill includes language banning faith-based groups from receiving federal funds if they consider religion in their hiring process.
The provision states: "With respect to any activity to be funded (in whole or in part) through an award of a grant, cooperative agreement, or contract under this title or any other statutory authority of the Administration, the Administrator, or the Director of the Center involved, as the case may be, may not make such an award unless the applicant agrees to refrain from considering religion or any profession of faith when making any employment decision regarding an individual who is or will be assigned to carry out any portion of the activity. This paragraph applies notwithstanding any other provision of Federal law, including any exemption otherwise applicable to a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society."
Though Kennedy has argued that faith-based hiring is discrimination, the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance says it is not discrimination, but rather a protection of the organizations' rights.
Religious groups argue that Congress would be tampering with their freedom of religion if such legislation is passed.
"Our nation needs religious charities," said Richard Stearns, president and CEO of World Vision, U.S. "For decades, we have relied on and benefitted from religious charities receiving federal grants. There is no good reason – nor a compelling legal justification – to jeopardize those organizations and, more importantly, the people they serve."
In the last fiscal year, World Vision – a Christian humanitarian organization – received $300 million in federal funds.
The groups point out that the right of faith-based organizations to compete for federal grants while retaining the opportunity to hire people of like-minded faith is not a policy holdover from the George W. Bush administration. It was established under two Democratic administrations.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act that allows religious employers to prefer staff who share their religious conviction and mission. And President Bill Clinton signed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that the government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion.
Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Michigan law school and a constitutional scholar, reiterated those rights in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., on behalf of the religious groups.
"Does government substantially burden the exercise of religion, within the meaning of RFRA, when it offers monetary grants on condition that a religious organization abandon one of its religious practices?" Laycock wrote. "Yes it does."
Notably, most of the organizations represented in the letter to members of Congress do not accept federal grants. But they contend that the legislation could affect their continued ability to be able to hire people of like-minded faith.