This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is a push in some religious circles to allow publicly-financed, faith-based service groups to receive taxpayer money — and still discriminate when hiring.

More than 100 religion-based organizations are protesting a provision in pending legislation that would prohibit them from receiving federal money if they consider a job applicant’s religion when hiring.

In a letter sent Wednesday to all members of Congress, the groups contend that the provision would dilute protections they have under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as under the Constitution.

“Those four lines in the legislation would be a seismic change in bedrock civil rights law for religious organizations,” said Steven McFarland, chief legal counsel at World Vision USA, a Christian aid organization that is leading the protest. “The impact would be huge and severely affect our ability to help children and others in need.”

The provision is in legislation to reauthorize the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which makes grants to nonprofit social service organizations.

This gets back to a fight we saw in the mid-’90s over a policy called “charitable choice,” which was included in the welfare reform package. Religiously-based social service groups — those who run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc. — can apply for public grants to fill public needs. The groups, however, don’t want strings attached — they want taxpayer money, but they also want to be free of employment-discrimination laws.

So, if the Southern Baptists wanted public funds to run a soup kitchen, for example, they might also want to only hire Southern Baptists to work there.

Faith-based groups could always hire and fire whomever they pleased, but this is a little different, because it involves taxpayer money. A church that only wants to hire fellow adherents is fine; a church that discriminates with our money is more problematic.

Expect the fight to pick up in earnest when the House reconvenes and has to vote on the funding bill.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* It’s quite ridiculous that steps like these are needed: “Dozens of high-profile Christian and other denominational leaders are defending Obama’s profession of faith and criticizing those who would question it. Those leaders, whose ranks include prominent pastors T.D. Jakes and Kirbyjon Caldwell, wrote in an open letter: ‘We are deeply troubled by the recent questioning of President Obama’s faith. We understand that these are contentious times, but the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate.'”

* As anti-Muslim bigotry seems to spread, and far-right opposition to mosques becomes more common, incidents like these seem more predictable: “The Fresno Bee reports that a brick was thrown through a window of the Madera Islamic center last Friday. There have been repeated instances of hate directed against this particular mosque. Signs have been left at the Islamic center carrying inflammatory messages.”

* In Utah, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate this year, is calling for tougher graduation requirements, including a stronger emphasis on math and science. Incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert (R), in a rather shameless display, said Corroon’s plan would make it more difficult on Mormon students looking for seminary time. (Utah schools have “release time” programs where students, as an elective, go to nearby churches for religious training.)

* And James Dobson’s retirement seems surprisingly active: “James Dobson, founder of the Colorado Springs-based ministries Focus on the Family and Family Talk, announced plans on his ‘Family Talk with James Dobson radio show Thursday to form a political action group similar to Focus’ CitizenLink.” (thanks to D.J. for the tip)