Faith groups say bill would mean loss of government funds, CO

  • February 1, 2008

Religious groups are urging state lawmakers to kill a bill they say would force them to choose between hiring people who share their faith or accepting government money.

Representatives of Catholic Charities, Focus on the Family, the Denver Rescue Mission and Avista Adventist Hospital gathered at the Capitol Wednesday to oppose the measure (House Bill 1080). It states that religious groups can’t discriminate based on religion in hiring people for positions supported with government funding. “I see this as part of a continuing assault on religious freedom in this state and it needs to stop,” said Jim Pfaff, president of the Colorado Family Institute, a public policy group with links to Focus on the Family.

House Majority Leader Alice Madden said the bill is needed to clarify an anti-discrimination bill that passed last year but she said it won’t change the “real world practices” of religious groups.

Last year, state lawmakers changed the law to bar all businesses and organizations from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation as well as religion in hiring. Following opposition from religious groups, state lawmakers amended the bill at the end of the session to make an exemption just for religious organizations. The bill, which was signed into law, said religious groups could consider a prospective employee’s religion.

Madden said that the new bill is needed because she said religious groups getting public funds have never been allowed to discriminate based on religion. She said the bill just returns the law to where it was before that bill passed in 2007.

“If they weren’t discriminating in 2007, they’re fine now,” she said.

However, Christopher Rose, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Denver, said three of his organization’s 640 employees are required to be Catholic, including the CEO. If lawmakers pass the new bill, Rose said the group would decide to give up about $16 million in federal, state and local funding for things including child care for low-income parents and subsidized housing.

The bill is supported by the Anti-Defamation League. Regional director Bruce DeBoskey doesn’t think the bill would force religious groups to have to stop their work. He said groups receiving public funding can arrange their budgets so that people who must be of a certain faith are paid only using private dollars.

“In America, taxpayer dollars may never be used to discriminate. That’s not the American way,” DeBoskey said.

The Denver Rescue Mission, which gets about 5 percent of its funding from government sources, requires all its employees to sign a basic declaration of Christian faith not limited to any specific denomination. Steve Walkup, vice president for programs and ministries, said the mission serves anyone in need but said it’s important for the staff to share a common faith-based cause.

“There is not one of these organizations up here that is going to say we lose our religious identity,” Walkup said.