Canton Repository

March 17, 2005

Regula, Ney, Dems differ on faith-based hiring

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — As Congress debates whether religious organizations should have the right to hire only members of their own faith, even when they receive federal funds, Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, contends existing law already protects that right.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, is uncertain about the issue.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lisbon, strenuously opposes religiously based employment discrimination among any group receiving federal funds.

As part of his faith-based initiative, President Bush has urged Congress to pass a law protecting the right of religious groups to reject job applicants from other faiths even if the groups accept federal money to provide public services.

Last year, the administration awarded $2 billion in federal grants to religious charities.

Bush warned that if Congress does not pass such a law this year, he may issue an executive order to implement the hiring protection.

In 2002, Bush used an executive order to expand the distribution of federal money to religious charities providing services.

Federal law prohibits federal funds from being used in any “inherently religious” activity. It also bars organizations from discriminating against beneficiaries of services on the basis of faith.

But religious organizations are allowed to compete for at least some federal funding without having to give up the right to hire on the basis of religion.

Regula favors allowing faith-based groups to take religion into account when hiring while accepting federal money.

And he believes existing law permits this.

“I think it (the Civil Rights Act) would cover this situation, and we had a couple of bills before in the Clinton administration of a similar nature that he signed, so it’s nothing new,” he said.

Under the Civil Rights Act, religious groups can discriminate in hiring “even if they do get some federal money,” Regula said.

Opponents argue it is unconstitutional for a religious group to hire only members of its own faith while accepting federal cash. In February, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit challenging the right of a religious group that hires only Christians to receive federal funds.

Ney indicated he is struggling with the issue.

“I mean, I don’t know the complete answer, how we ever solve that,” he said. “I’ve heard the issues raised and that they can discriminate ... . It’s a complicated question ... . It’s a tough one.”

The Civil Rights Act prohibits most employers from discrimination in hiring. It exempts religious organizations, which are allowed to exclude job applicants from other faiths.

Area Democratic lawmakers contend that any religious group receiving federal funds is obligated not to discriminate against job applicants from other faiths.

“What this administration is doing is encouraging discrimination,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lisbon.

On March 2, the House passed job-training legislation that includes a provision allowing religious groups that receive federal job training funds to discriminate in their hiring decisions. If that becomes law, it would reverse existing policy.

Regula and Ney joined a majority of Republicans in support of the bill. Reps. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, Tim Ryan, D-Warren, and Strickland voted against it, along with a majority of Democrats.

Strickland called passage of the bill “one of the most disturbing things that I have seen the Congress do in the 10 years that I’ve served there.

“It is un-American, I believe it is unconstitutional and I think it will damage the very fabric of this country,” he said. “The House has placed its stamp of approval on discrimination based on religious faith.”

The Senate has not approved such legislation, and it has rejected similar House bills in the past.

Sens. George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, Ohio Republicans, have supported Bush’s faith-based initiative, but their views on the employment question are unclear.

Defending religious- hiring decisions, Bush said one reason faith-based groups “are so effective is a commitment to serve that is grounded in the shared values and religious identity of their volunteers and employees.”

But Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said organizations such as Catholic Charities have accepted federal funds for years while forswearing religious-based hiring in government-funded programs.

Congress has passed conflicting laws affecting religious hiring. Federal funds supporting drug treatment and welfare, for example, do not come with a prohibition against religious hiring, while funds for job training do.

Bush said the confusion created by contradictory laws discourages faith-based groups from seeking federal money.

Regula took a pass on whether it would be right for Bush to issue an executive order to protect religious-based hiring if Congress does not pass a law.

“That’s his decision,” Regula said.