WASHINGTON (ABP) — The House of Representatives has turned back a challenge to a bill that would allow religious organizations receiving federal funding to discriminate in hiring.
In debate on the bill Feb. 4, Democrats attempted to offer a substitute bill in place of the Community Services Block Grants Act (H.R. 3030). The Democrats' alternative would have removed a provision in the legislation that allows religious groups receiving funding under the federal CSBG program to hire only co-religionists.
The substitute failed on a 232-183 vote. All but three voting in its favor were Democrats, and all but two voting against it were Republicans.
Federal civil-rights laws from the 1960s prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of religion but contain special exemptions that allow churches and similar religious organizations to hire only adherents of their own faith.
However, several federal programs deny government contracts and funding to groups that practice job discrimination on any grounds, including religion.
The legislation authorizing CSBG has, since 1998, contained a provision allowing religious organizations receiving federal funds under the program to retain the right to hire only co-religionists. President Bush's and his congressional allies have pushed for similar provisions in other federal spending bills as an essential part of his “faith-based initiative” plan to fund social services through religious groups.
In impassioned floor debate prior to the bill's passage, Democrats repeatedly characterized the provision as “un-American,” while Republicans said removing the provision would discourage many faith-based groups from participating in the CSBG program.
“Why should any American citizen have to pass another American citizen's personal religious test to qualify for a federal education program or a job training program? Why should it be legal for a group to accept a $5 million Head-Start or job-training grant from the taxpayers and say we are not going to hire Jews or Catholics?” Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) asked. “In a land that cherishes religious freedom, do you really believe that that is a good public policy?”
But Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the committee that recommended the bill, posed the opposite question in response: “Why should a faith-based organization that is providing tremendous community services give up the protections granted to them under the 1964 Civil Rights Act just because they accept federal dollars in their mission to help low-income people?”
Despite their failure to strip the employment-discrimination exemption from the legislation, Democrats counted it a small victory that the House actually held an up-or-down vote on the issue.
“It is such a pleasure to hear a real debate. I am delighted,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).
The bill provides re-authorization of the long-standing CSBG program. Although the hiring-discrimination exemption for religious groups was first added to the program during a similar re-authorization in 1998, that legislation passed the House on a middle-of-the-night voice vote and few legislators were aware of its inclusion in the bill at the time. A House-Senate conference committee had slipped it in shortly before the bill's final passage.
President Bill Clinton signed that bill into law, but stated at the time he did not agree with the religious discrimination exemption.
But Republicans' tight control of the House has meant that similar provisions rarely have received floor debate or separate up-or-down votes. The House Rules Committee determines which amendments get to be considered when a bill is brought to the floor.