According to the Department of Justice, there are more than 20,000 gangs and 1 million gang members in the U.S. These gangs operate in all states; they're active in our inner cities, our suburbs, small towns, and even rural areas.
Given the scope of the problem, the federal government is prepared to work with anyone who can help, including faith-based groups like World Vision.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention proposed giving World Vision a $1.5 million grant to create an anti-gang initiative in New York and Washington, DC.
Given World Vision's track record in helping people in need around the world, and given also the success of Christian groups like Prison Fellowship—we've had peer-reviewed studies that show that we're effective in reducing recidivism dramatically—this seems like a very good fit.
The only problem is that World Vision, like other Christian groups, insists on hiring, well, Christians. It only hires those who "who agree and accept its Statement of Faith and/or the Apostles' Creed." At the same time, Congress has barred "discrimination by federal grant recipients."
World Vision argued that the application of that ban to its hiring practices would constitute a "substantial burden" on the free exercise of their faith. It claimed that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibited imposing such a burden and asked for a waiver in this one area.
In a memo issued last year, the Office of Legal Counsel agreed to what it called a "narrowly drawn" exception to the prohibition against "discrimination."
As soon as the memo was published, the usual suspects cried "foul." Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State called it "subverting congressional and constitutional intent in pursuit of a forbidden goal: discrimination in hiring." The senior legislative counsel of the ACLU breathlessly called it "the church-state equivalent of the torture memos."
Well, these and other critics are putting their vision of church and state ahead of actually helping people or serving the common good.
World Vision feeds, clothes, shelters, and provides medical care to poor people all around the world. They are among the first on the ground whenever disaster strikes. Why? Because of their faith. Likewise, their faith is why other groups build homes, minister to prisoners, and feed the hungry, regardless of race, color or creed.
Insisting that they hire people who don't share their faith is asking them to cut themselves off from what motivates their efforts and makes them effective.
The obvious, if difficult, answer is for Christian organizations to refuse government money. Prison Fellowship, for example, accepts no federal funds. But there's no reason to think that the problem will then go away. The anti-religion fanatics will next seek to strip Christian non-profits of their tax exempt status—and even access to those in need of our help—in order to pressure us and make religion a purely private matter.
In the end, the biggest loser will be the common good, as people who need help don't get it, which is the cruelest kind of discrimination of all.