End Employment Discrimination by Religious Groups via 'Faith-Based' Initiatives

In a glaring exemption to federal laws that generally prohibit employment discrimination,[1] religious groups and organizations that seek out and accept taxpayer funds in order to provide government-contracted social services are currently allowed to discriminate based on religion in their employment decisions. The exemption for religious groups is part of a multibillion dollar federal program, called the faith-based initiative, and it is now active in 13 federal agencies and departments.[2]

Within the faith-based initiative, religious organizations may accept taxpayer funds in order to provide government-contracted social services, such as a soup kitchen or foster care, and use those funds to hire only those who also practice the same faith, whether or not the job itself has any religious function. An otherwise qualified individual who applies to a faith-based organization for a job may be rejected solely because he or she practices the wrong religion or has no religion at all.

This policy is hurting real people. For example, World Relief,[3] a Christian-based organization that in 2010 received 53 percent of its $62 million budget from U.S. federal and state grants and programs,[4] requires all applicants to sign a “Christian Commitment” statement saying that they will “accept and acknowledge the Statement of Faith and the Mission, Vision and Values” as a condition of employment.”[5] On the Christian Commitment statement candidates are informed they must demonstrate the following as part of the application process:

  • “Discuss their testimony and their personal relationship with Jesus Christ;
  • Provide a pastoral or ministerial reference who can attest to the applicant’s spiritual walk
  • Demonstrate a willingness to participate in staff devotions, chapel services and special times of prayer.”[6]

Saad Mohammad Ali, an Iraq refugee, volunteered for six months at World Relief in Seattle.[7] A manager at the organization suggested Mohammad Ali apply for a full-time paid position as an Arabic-speaking caseworker.[8] A few days after Ali applied for the position, the same manager contacted Ali to tell him that he was ineligible for the caseworker position because Ali was a Muslim and not a Christian.[9]

In addition to World Relief, the Salvation Army[10] and World Vision[11] receive millions of federal and state taxpayer funds and choose to discriminate against employees or new applicants who do not follow the organizations’ central faith.

In 2007, the last year for which comprehensive numbers are available, $2.2 billion in federal grants were awarded to faith-based organizations by 11 federal agencies.[12] That is about 11 percent of the $20.4 billion in federal grants that were awarded.[13] Groups were identified as ‘faith-based’ by an optional survey given to grant applicants.[14]

For decades, religious organizations were providing many kinds of government-contracted services without the faith-based initiative. However, with one executive order,[15] President George W. Bush reversed decades of anti-discrimination precedent that had been carefully built by presidential executive orders since the 1940s when executive orders by President Franklin Roosevelt first prohibited employment discrimination by the federal government, defense industries, and government contractors.[16] Instead, the Bush administration endorsed religious organizations’ desire to be able to discriminate in their employment decisions and still be able to bid for federal service contracts.

The Secular Coalition asserts that religious and secular nonprofits should be treated the same under law and that taxpayer dollars should not be used to endorse any kind of discrimination.


[1] The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, amended, 42 U.S.C. § 703(a)
[2] U.S. departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Homeland Security, Education, Labor, and Justice as well as the Agency for International Development, the Small Business Administration , the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Corporation for National and Community Service; Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ofbnp/offices/federal
[3] http://worldrelief.org/
[4] Financial Accountability, 2010 Financial Statement, http://worldrelief.org/Page.aspx?pid=2689. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2011
[5] “Christian Commitment”, http://worldrelief.org/Document.Doc?id=1049. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2011
[6] Id
[7]Turnbull, Lornet, “World Relief Rejects Job Applicant Over His Faith,” Seattle Times, Mar. 10, 2010. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2011301098_worldrelief10.... Retrieved Nov. 11, 2011
[8] Id
[9] Id
[10] ACLU, “ NYCLU Sues Salvation Army for Religious Discrimination Against Employees in Government-Funded Social Services for Children,” Feb. 24, 2004; “http://www.aclu.org/religion-belief/nyclu-sues-salvation-army-religious-discrimination-against-employees-government-fund. AND “The Salvation Army provides a unique opportunity to utilize your talents and skills in a career aimed to help those in need. The many benefits we offer include: Christian work environment. ...”; http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn_2.nsf/vw-dynamic-arrays/B81E...
[11] “Job Opportunities: Who You Are: You are a committed Christian eager to put your faith into action every day as you use your life to make a tangible difference for children in need.” http://www.worldvision.org/content.nsf/about/hr-home?open&lpos=top_drp_A...
[12] Perry, Suzanne, “President Calls ‘Faith-Based’ Grant Effort ‘Bigger Than Politics’,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 28, 2008, http://philanthropy.com/article/President-Bush-Calls/62867/
[13] Id
[14] Id
[15] Executive Order 13279 (2002)
[16] Executive Order 8802 (1941, 1943); Executive Order 10308 (1951); Executive Order 10479 (1953); Executive Order 10925 (1961); Executive Order 11246 (1965)

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