President Bush yesterday signed executive orders allowing the federal government to hire religious contractors that he said have suffered discrimination under “secular” regulations.
“The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end,” Mr. Bush told a gathering of volunteers in Philadelphia.
“Many acts of discrimination against faith-based groups are committed by executive branch agencies,” he added. “As the leader of the executive branch, I’m going to make some changes effective today.”
The move was condemned by liberals who accused Mr. Bush of circumventing the will of Congress, which has not passed the president’s faith-based initiative. Some critics said Mr. Bush is expanding discrimination, not curtailing it.
“Bush is on a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We will explore every opportunity to challenge this in the courts.
“Under this scheme, taxpayers will be forced to support churches they don’t believe in, and workers will be denied publicly funded jobs because they don’t conform to religious mandates,” he said.
“The American people should be very scared of what the president has done today,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, who accused Mr. Bush of “legalizing government-funded religious discrimination.”
The two men were referring to new rules that let contractors maintain their religious identities by hiring members of their own religion. But Mr. Bush said that does not amount to state sponsorship of any church.
“I recognize that government has no business endorsing a religious creed or directly funding religious worship or religious teaching,” the president said.
“Yet government can and should support social services provided by religious people as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith,” he added.
Mr. Bush rattled off a series of incidents in which the federal government had discriminated against religious groups.
“In Iowa, for example, the Victory Center Rescue Mission was told to return grant money to the government because the mission’s board of directors was not secular enough,” he said. “The Saint Francis House homeless shelter in South Dakota was denied a grant because voluntary prayers were offered before meals.
“A few years ago in New York, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was discouraged from even applying for federal funds because it had the word ‘Jewish’ in its name,” he added.
Mr. Lynn was unswayed by such examples. He compared the president unfavorably to incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is under fire for comments in praise of Sen. Strom Thurmond, who in 1948 was a presidential candidate who ran to preserve racial segregation.
“Trent Lott seems to fantasize about rolling back civil rights protections, but the president is actually doing so,” Mr. Lynn said. “He is rolling back all Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties.”
Jim Towey, who heads the president’s faith-based initiative office, disagreed.
“Certainly, the president respects the importance of the constitutional prohibition of funding religion,” he said. “The wall he wants to tear down is the wall that separates the poor from effective programs.”
He added: “The poor have been denied access to effective programs simply because that organization might have had a religious character. So he opposes the funding of religion; always has. This initiative is about better care for the poor.”
One of the executive orders signed by Mr. Bush yesterday requires that federal agencies expressly ensure that their policies do not discriminate against organizations based upon religion. The order specifically allows religious groups to contract with the government while maintaining religious tests for their employees, while other federal anti-discrimination provisions will continue to apply, and it also specifies that religious nonprofit organizations are eligible for federal aid when damaged in a disaster.
The other order establishes faith-based initiative centers at the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Five other agencies already have offices to guide religious groups through the federal bureaucracy.
Mr. Bush singled out what he called “several federal agencies with a history of discrimination against faith-based groups.”
These include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said FEMA has a particularly poor track record when it comes to dealing with religious groups. For example, after an earthquake in Seattle, FEMA denied disaster funds to a group because it was overtly Jewish.
“This group, the Seattle Hebrew Academy, was a private religious school which was denied relief after the earthquake on the grounds that it was a religious institution and, therefore, did not qualify for disaster relief,” Mr. Fleischer said.
“The president’s executive order will change that,” he added. “The president sees no reason why a group that is damaged by an earthquake should be discriminated against because its mission is religious.”
A similar fate befell Sharyn Cosby Ministries, an Oklahoma organization that provides after-school programs for juvenile delinquents. In April 2001, the group applied for a $10,000 grant from the Justice Department.
“They were notified in June 2001 that they received the award,” Mr. Fleischer said. “But then, after the group’s bylaws were reviewed, the organization was declared too religious in nature, even though the service the organization was providing was completely secular.”
Mr. Bush still plans to send other parts of his faith-based initiative to Congress, where it is more likely to pass now that Republicans control the House and Senate. But the president decided to use his executive powers to enact the most urgent measures now.
“Faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission, and I don’t intend to compromise either,” he said.
“I will continue to work with Congress on this agenda,” he added. “But the needs of our country are urgent. And as president, I have an authority I intend to use.”