Dozens of major religious groups and denominations are urging Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to renounce a Bush-era memo that allows faith-based charities that receive federal funding to discriminate in hiring. Should religious charities that receive federal grant money be allowed to discriminate in hiring?
Once again, there are two competing moral truths involved in addressing this question.
On the one hand, tax dollars should never be used to discriminate. The notion that e.g. a Jew, Muslim, or Hindu can pay taxes to the government, which turns them over to a religious organization to perform social services, and the religious organization can post the government-paid-for job with a notice that “no Jews, Muslims or Hindus need apply” is deeply troubling.
On the other, the government has often acted to exempt religious organizations from non-discrimination rules to allow them to ensure their religious identity by hiring people who share their faith. So if you do not take government money, under the religious exemption in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, religious organizations can discriminate on the grounds of religion, i.e. favoring employees who share your religious identity or beliefs or adhere to your religious tenets. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld this provision in the Amos case.
The knotty question, never resolved by the Supreme Court – and with divided rulings at the lower court levels – is: Does the exemption apply to government funded positions?
Our two starting countervailing values are best balanced by prohibiting hiring discrimination in the specific programs receiving government funding but allowing it in the religious organizations’ other, privately funded, programs (with some exceptions for discrimination in the funded programs for supervisory staff, where their particular job is not paid for by government funds and they have specific responsibilities to maintain the religious identity of the organization).
Since government funded social service programs are explicitly barred from having specific religious content (e.g. worship, proselytization or religious education), justification for hiring preferences on religious grounds are sharply mitigated for people providing social service, e.g. serving food, providing shelter, tutoring, etc.
As a Jew, in balancing these principles, moral and historical reasons tilt toward ensuring that tax dollars not be used to discriminate. Our commitment to bar discrimination stems from a core teaching shared by an array of faith traditions, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. In the words of Genesis, (1:27), “And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” We oppose discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, national origin, religion or sexual orientation, for the stamp of the Divine is imprinted on the souls of each and every one of us.
We Jews come to the challenge of banning job discrimination with historical sensitivities, as well, for we have been among the quintessential victims of group hatred, persecution, and discrimination in Western Civilization. We know all too well the impact of discrimination and second-class citizenship, of what it is like to be denied opportunities for jobs or other benefits because of who we are.
The bottom line for all religious organizations: If you feel you must discriminate in one of your programs, just don’t accept government funds.