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Protect religious hiring rights, group urges

WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land and 10 Baptist college presidents joined other American religious leaders Aug. 25 in urging Congress to protect the hiring rights of faith-based organizations that receive federal grants.

The request came only two days after a federal appeals court delivered an important victory for the hiring practices of federally funded religious organizations.

The letter — with 108 signers, including heads of many of the country’s most prominent Christian organizations — went to all the members of the Senate and House of Representatives. It asked them to resist attempts to amend federal law to prevent religious groups that receive government funds from making employment decisions based on their faith.

“We respectfully ask you to uphold and protect this fundamental right, allowing faith-based charities to be treated equally as secular groups when competing for federal funds and to hire employees who share their faith, whether Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian,” the signers said in the letter. “These groups adhere strictly to the law, forbid the use of public funds to proselytize or for any religious activities, and serve all people in need, regardless of faith.”

Most of the signers represent organizations or schools that do not accept federal money, according to World Vision, the Christian aid organization that led the effort.

Land is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Also signing were the presidents of the following schools affiliated with Baptist state conventions: Bluefield College (Va.); Campbellsville University (Ky.); Cedarville University (Ohio); Dallas Baptist University; East Texas Baptist University; Howard Payne University (Texas); Mississippi College; Shorter University (Ga.); Southwest Baptist University (Mo.); and Union University (Tenn.).

Among other signers were the heads not only of humanitarian organizations such as World Vision, Compassion International, Food for the Hungry, Samaritan’s Purse and The Salvation Army, USA, but also of Focus on the Family, Prison Fellowship, National Association of Evangelicals, Christian Medical and Dental Associations, Evangelicals for Social Action, Sojourners, Care Net, Precept Ministries International, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America also endorsed the letter.

On Aug. 23, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld World Vision’s right to hire and fire employees based on its religious beliefs. In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit panel affirmed that World Vision is a religious organization that qualifies for an exemption from religious job discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The panel, which upheld the opinion of a federal court in the state of Washington, said World Vision did not unlawfully discriminate when it dismissed three employees after it learned they no longer believed in the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. All three had agreed with World Vision’s confession of faith and provided testimonies of their faith in Christ when they were hired.

There have been calls this year from inside and outside Congress to rescind the right of faith-based organizations that receive federal grants to consider an applicant’s religion in hiring.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D.-R.I., introduced in May legislation that would bar hiring on the basis of religion in federally funded drug treatment and mental health programs, according to the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA). His language is part of H.R. 5466, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Modernization Act.

In February, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) wrote President Obama to request he ban hiring on the basis of faith by religious organizations that participate in government-funded social service programs. Five Democratic congressmen endorsed CARD’s appeal in a letter to Obama the same month.

Among signers of the CARD letter were Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Interfaith Alliance, ACLU, American Humanist Association, Anti-Defamation League, NAACP, People for the American Way, Human Rights Campaign and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The Aug. 25 letter to Congress, however, said the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protect the freedom of faith-based, social-service groups to apply their religious beliefs in hiring. They pointed to a 2007 memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that said RFRA can provide an exemption to “those religious charities that can show that it would substantially burden their religious freedom to have to drop their religious hiring policy in order to receive a federal grant.”

“We intend to continue working effectively with government in a constitutionally-sound and proven manner, but only if we can stay faith-based in mission, which means remaining faith-based in those we hire,” the letter’s signers said.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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