Posted in .

Would law handcuff faith-based charities? No, it only assures fairness in hiring

  • February 2, 2008

Rocky Mountain News

Imagine you are a social worker who has 10 years of experience counseling young offenders. Looking for a new challenge, you apply for a job opening in a state-funded program run by a local church. At your interview, you are prepared to answer questions about your counseling experience, your approach to clients and your interest in this position.

However, one of the first questions you are asked is, “What is your religion?” You are startled to learn that applicants from only one faith will be considered for this government-funded position.

This scenario can happen in Colorado today. After a change in state law in 2007, Colorado’s employment discrimination laws allow religious organizations, for the first time, to discriminate on the basis of faith when they are running programs with taxpayer funds. House Bill 1080, pending in the General Assembly, would change that. It would ensure that no one faces a religious test to work on a government-funded program.

HB 1080 would not change religious organizations’ ability to choose most of their employees based on religion. A church still can hire Sunday school teachers who share its faith; a synagogue can still insist that its rabbi is Jewish. HB 1080 doesn’t affect those hiring policies because most programs run by faith organizations do not rely on taxpayer funds to pay for them.

When religious organizations choose to accept taxpayer money from the government to provide social services, those programs – often called “faith-based initiatives” – already carry restrictions on what the religious group can do with the money. The organization must serve the public, regardless of the clients’ religion. The funds cannot be used for religious purposes, and the program cannot require any client to submit to any religious activity. HB 1080 would restore to that list of responsibilities the obligation to treat all employees funded by that money equally, without regard to their religion.

Religious organizations that receive faith-based initiative grants are acting on behalf of the government. Certainly, if the government – in its own hiring and firing decisions – was permitted to decide whom to hire or fire on the basis of an employee’s religion, the religious community would be the first to object. Such discrimination would violate the longstanding principles of equal protection upon which this great democracy has been built.

The religious community would argue – rightly – that there should never be a religious litmus test for a government job. That rule of fairness and equality should not depend on whether the government-funded program is administered by the public sector, a secular private institution or a religious organization.

In fact, that was the rule in Colorado before 2007. Religious organizations were free to discriminate in hiring based on faith except when they were supported by public funds. A 2007 amendment deleted this important protection against religious discrimination.

Critics of HB 1080, including Focus on the Family and the Archdiocese of Denver, are threatening to close down certain taxpayer-funded social service programs if they’re not allowed to discriminate in employment even though Catholic Charities has admitted that only three out of more than 600 employees might be affected by this law.

These threats ring hollow in light of the previous law prohibiting discrimination based on creed. Presumably, the opponents of HB 1080 were complying with that law. HB 1080 is simply meant to restore the important prohibitions against employment discrimination when using public funds. It is limited in scope to apply only to employees who will be doing the government’s business. It is not intended to discriminate against any religious groups, but rather is intended to apply the same standards to any organization that is the recipient of government funds to provide social services.

Fundamentally, HB 1080 supports religious liberty and the diversity of our religious communities. It is meant to protect employees of any faith when they are applying to work on a government grant – and its purpose is to prevent discrimination and protect the religious freedom of each and every one of us.

Bruce H. DeBoskey is the mountain states regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.