Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Religious Leaders to Congress: 'Don't Tamper with our Rights'

/PRNewswire/ -- Leaders from more than 100 religious organizations are urging Congress against tampering with the freedom of religion, contending that pending legislation would deny religious charities receiving federal grants their fundamental right to hire people who share their faith.

In a letter delivered today to every member of the House and Senate, the leaders of World Vision, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (UOJCA), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others argue that, "such actions would be catastrophic to our efforts to serve those in need, and to all who value the protection for religious liberty."

Richard Stearns, the president and CEO of World Vision, U.S., says the letter and other efforts are targeting not just pending legislation, but also calls for Congress to ban religious hiring exemptions in an expected continuing budget resolution later this fall.

"Too much is at stake - especially among the tens of millions who receive help, care and support from faith-based charities," says Stearns. "Our nation needs religious charities. For decades, we have relied on and benefited 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."

Interestingly, most of those signing the letter represent organizations and educational institutions that do not accept federal grants.

Contrary to a common misconception, the right of religious organizations to compete for federal grants while retaining the opportunity to hire people of like-minded faith is not a policy holdover from the administration of George W. Bush. Rather, it rests on legislation passed under two Democratic administrations:

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that allows religious employers to prefer staff who share their religious conviction and mission.

President Bill Clinton, in 1993 signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), based on which, the Justice Department recently concluded faith-based organizations are entitled to continue their religious hiring policy while also receiving federal grants. That legislation 17 years ago was championed by then-Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), as well as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and then Representative Charles Schumer (R-N.Y.).

The religious leaders also included a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. from constitutional scholar Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Michigan law school. Laycock explains why RFRA protects the religious hiring rights of some faith-based grantees and urges Holder to enforce such rights.

"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."

Moreover, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the law guaranteeing this right does not violate the separation of church and state.

"The law is clear and has been for nearly 50 years," says Nathan Diament, Director of Public Policy for the UOJCA and a signatory to the letter. "Faith is foundational to faith-based agencies. It is the motivation for our work, and it is what drives us to engage in service to others."

Faith-based organizations recognize that if they receive federal grants they cannot discriminate in selecting recipients of services funded by those grants. Moreover, they are prohibited from proselytizing. Anyone needing assistance must be served equally, regardless of their interest - or lack thereof - in religion or religious activities or messages, according to the law.

"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 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "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."

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