Acton Commentary

The Codification of Common Sense


Regardless of what one may think about the specific forms that the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative has taken, it has been consistent in its affirmation of important first principles in dealing with faith-based groups. To many, this may not seem to be a significant policy achievement. However, in a society that is growing increasingly secular and in a political environment where People for the American Way (PFAW), the rabidly secularist lobby group, dominates discussions of faith in public life, this is no small achievement. The latest installment of the White House’s efforts to restore some sanity to the discussion over faith-based groups that accept federal funding comes in the form of its recently released guidance document--“Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations.”

This important document is an attempt to codify some common sense as to the question of hiring practices by faith-based groups who accept government dollars. The document takes its lead from the Title VII provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects the rights of religious groups to make religiously guided employment decisions. The Bush administration’s position is that whether or not a faith-based group receives federal funds, its fundamental civil rights and its ability to take faith into account when hiring, should be preserved.

The document offers three very simple principles that should guide faith-based groups who partner with the government to provide social services:

  • They should not discriminate against any persons receiving a public service or make participation in religious activities a condition for receiving services;
  • They should be accountable for the public funds they receive and use them only for their intended purposes, with no Federal dollars being used to support inherently religious activities; and
  • When they receive Federal funds, they should retain the right to hire those individuals who are best able to further their organization's goals and mission

Of course, these very reasonable principles, firmly rooted in the law of the land, have met with considerable opposition from PFAW and other like-minded anti-religious activists. According to its website, PFAW considers such principles to embody the “public funding of religious discrimination.” For those who reject such a blatantly anti-religious, secularist worldview, these provisions are just common sense. Would the NAACP choose to hire Senator Robert Byrd, given his past musings on racial questions? Or would the Democratic presidential candidates hire conservative, pro-life Republican staffers? Such scenarios are ludicrous, but it is important to note that both of these groups also “partner with the federal government” and are permitted to hire based on shared values.

Not only are these key principles rooted in the Title VII provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the decisions of the Supreme Court also support their legality. As Justice William Brennan wrote in upholding the law, “determining that certain activities are in furtherance of an organization's religious mission, and that only those committed to that mission should conduct them, is...a means by which a religious community defines itself.” In more easily understandable terms, the Justice has simply upheld the fact that religious groups have civil rights too and they ought to be respected.

Another important aspect of this guidance document is its attempt to clarify the conflicting and contradictory rules governing civil rights provisions that apply to some Federal social service programs. In addition to the provisions contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress has, over the years, enacted various other civil rights programs. As the guidance document observes, with respect to religious hiring rights, these laws can be confusing and, in some cases, even contradictory. It should be noted, however, given the considerable litigation surrounding questions of church and state as well as the acrimonious politics concerning the faith-based agenda, that this document is unlikely to settle such questions once and for all.

While there are significant problems involved with faith-based groups receiving (or desiring to receive) federal funding, the involvement of government in the financing of social services is a current reality. In this context, it is simply justice that if secular groups who receive federal funding can hire according to their mission and ideology, then the rights of religious groups to do the same ought to be respected.