Faith-Based Charities Should be Allowed to Protect Identity, Says Wallis

Religious charities that receive government funding should be allowed to keep their religious identity in terms of who they hire, says progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis.

Though no faith-based social service provider should ever discriminate who they serve if they receive public funds, there is a need for groups to "preserve" their religious identity, the founder of Sojourners ministry wrote in his blog Friday.

"[S]ervice provision is not the same thing as hiring," Wallis asserts. "To do what they do, faith organizations must maintain their identity."

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Wallis' response was to a recent question posted on The Washington Post's "On Faith" forum which asks religious leaders if they think faith-based charities that receive federal funding should be allowed to "discriminate in hiring."

The question was posed because dozens of major religious groups and denominations are urging Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder, Jr. to renounce a Bush-era memo that allows faith-based charities that receive public money to select who they hire based on their religious affiliation.

In his response, Wallis disagrees with the Post's use of the word "discriminate" to describe the hiring practice of religious charities. He says the question was wrongly asked because "nobody likes the word 'discriminate,' nor wants to do it."

Instead, the question, in his opinion, should have been phrased: "Should religious organizations be allowed to hire people of their own faith tradition and persuasion in order to maintain their identity?"

Wallis believes that if faith groups are forced to conform their hiring policies to the standards of secular groups that receive federal funding then many faith groups would rather give up the money than change their policies. That in turn would cause "radical disruption" in key partnerships with the faith community.

Given the current economic crisis and the increase in the number of people who need help, it is not the time to lose these "critical partnerships," he asserts.

Similarly, Galen Carey, director of governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, supports allowing faith-based social service groups to make hiring decisions based on applicants' faith.

Drawing from his own experience of working at World Relief for over 26 years, he said his former ministry served people of all faiths and no faith without proselytizing or coercing them to change their religion.

But the Christian faith of the staff was important to the success of the ministry. Their faith would inspire them to "go above and beyond" the call of duty to help people in need.

In the case of the ministry's refugee programs, Carey noted, some refugees just receive basic housing, food, job training and other essential services. But for the refugees who were "lucky" enough to be sponsored by a church, the volunteers from church would take the refugee families on picnics and shopping trips. They would also arrange for free medical and dental care and introduce them to employers. Some church volunteers also spend hours visiting and practicing English with the refugees.

"They provided a rich texture of friendship, social and emotional support which no government program – and few secular private programs – could match," the NAE government affairs director contended.

But others, like Welton Gaddy, pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, La., believes any religious charity that accepts government money must not discriminate in hiring practice.

He and other religious leaders called on Atty. Gen. Holder to withdraw the Office of Legal Council's 2007 memo on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that he interprets as justifying discrimination in the name of religion.

"That association is neither good for religion nor for the nation," said Holder. "This memo must not be allowed to stand as policy and government money must not be used to discriminate."

Others who contributed to the Post's forum argued that religious groups should not receive or accept government funding at all.

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