Barack Obama gave a speech promoting faith-based initiatives recently that managed to upset both sides of the debate over whether and how to blend government funding and religious institutions. The strict separation of church and state types expressed dismay that Mr. Obama promised a continuation of what they see as undue entanglement. Some religious groups were unhappy about Mr. Obama's caveat: "(I)f you get a federal grant you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them - or against the people you hire - on the basis of their religion."
The controversial part is between the dashes: whether faith-based groups can discriminate in hiring. Religious institutions are generally exempt from the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on religion - this only makes sense. The hiring issue comes up in two ways related to government-funded programs, however. First, can the faith-based group choose to hire only adherents for that program? For instance, could a church that operates a soup kitchen, even if it does not preach to those it feeds, still employ only those who share its beliefs? Second, can faith-based groups discriminate in other ways to avoid conflicting with religious beliefs? Specifically, can religious groups that frown on homosexuality refuse to hire openly gay employees in government-funded programs? This question could take on new importance if a measure prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation were to become law during an Obama administration.
Currently, the answers to those questions are mixed, but the trend is toward giving religious groups more flexibility. The welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton explicitly permits religious groups to discriminate in hiring under the programs it funds. Other statutes explicitly prohibit such discrimination. The Bush administration has done what it can through executive orders and regulations to relax the rules for faith-based groups. The argument is that faith-based groups ought to be given the leeway granted to federally funded groups such as Planned Parenthood, which is entitled to hire staff that share its views on reproductive rights.
As a practical matter, this is not the huge obstacle that proponents of laxer rules conjure up. Most would-be employees who don't share the outlook of faith-based groups won't want to work for them anyway. Most faith-based groups that take federal funds have managed to thrive for years without discriminating in their hiring. Groups that believe hiring only members of their own faith is essential to their social service mission would remain free to do so as long as they do not take federal funds. Mr. Obama is right to want to tap into the power of faith-based groups to deliver social services. He is also right to want to prevent government funds from being used to subsidize discriminatory practices. His position strikes a sensible balance in a delicate area.