About two years ago, I applied for a job at an institution run by fundamentalist preacher John Hagee. I had been searching frantically for a middle-school teaching position after the school year had already begun. At that time, Cornerstone Schools, a subsidiary of the Hagee empire, was in need of a science teacher, so I called the principal to discuss the position. He suggested that I first download and read the school’s application before continuing the conversation. And so I did.
The application, not surprisingly, contained a page-and-a-half of religious questions that included some bizarre ones, such as, “Are you a member of the government of twelve?” and, “If so, which tribe?” During a later phone interview, I was told that Cornerstone teaches creation science, meaning I was to tell the kids that the earth is at the center of the universe and about 8,000-10,000 years old.
I didn’t pursue a position in this strange world where scientific law
doesn’t even exist in a science classroom. I came to learn through that experience that religious institutions do have the right to discriminate under Title VII of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which states “it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to hire and employ employees . . . on the basis of religion . . . in those certain instances where religion . . . is a bona-fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” Getting a job in a religious organization meant that you were protected only if the institution received government money.
In 2005, the Bush Administration — always eager for a religious battle — went one step further, and supported a provision contained in the Job Training and Improvement Act (H.R. 27) that permits even federally funded faith-based religious organizations to hire and fire workers based on their religious beliefs. This support for blatant discrimination obliterates the line between church and state, allowing discrimination against someone who doesn’t share a particular religious worldview.
Not all religious organizations believe that the federal government should codify religious discrimination. Arguing against the provision during the pre-vote debate, U.S. Representative James P. McGovern (D-MA.) said, “I cannot even begin to count the number of `religious` institutions that have contacted my office in the last few days asking to be held to those same `anti-discrimination` standards.”
Numerous civil-liberty groups also argued against the act’s passage. Despite this opposition, the amendment to restore civil-rights protections to the job-training bill was defeated 239-186, a vote that predominantly fell along party lines.
Even with the congressional changeover, government-watchdog groups are pessimistic that help is coming soon, particularly when discrimination complaints have risen by 20 percent since the year Bush took office. According to the website of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal organization charged with investigating discrimination claims there were 2,127 religious discrimination complaints in 2001, and 2,340 complaints by 2005.
Linda Grayhill of the ACLU says that Muslims, frequent victims of discrimination, particularly since 9/11, are “more reluctant than the general public to file discrimination claims,” due to their fear of a government that promotes special treatment for religious organizations, the overwhelming majority Christian.
Despite the drastically increased caseload, the government’s response has been to cut almost 600 EEOC employees — more than 20 percent of the agency’s workforce — since 2001.
Grayhill, a former government employee, says that “politics has infused the civil-rights department and the EEOC. They’re affected by the diminishing support from the Administration.”
Will the new Democratic Congress do anything about the increased religious discrimination caused by the special treatment of faith-based programs? That’s what a coalition of 35 diverse organizations, including the People for the American Way, the ACLU, and the Jewish Congress plan on demanding from the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Democrat Henry Waxman. They’ve penned a letter opposing any loosening of discrimination protections and containing the message that “we have every expectation and believe that anti-discrimination laws are to be vigorously enforced.”
I found a call to Representative Waxman’s office offered no insight. His press assistant, Molly Gulland, stated that which government programs to investigate “has not been decided.”
My prediction is nothing will be done for several reasons. First, evangelicals remain a powerful political force. According to stats in the film Jesus Camp, evangelicals comprise 25 percent of the U.S. population — 80 million people; 79 percent of those voted Republican in 2000. Second, the Democrats are overly concerned with their image and may view some evangelicals as a future vote source. According to author Michelle Goldberg of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, “The Democrats are trying very hard … to transcend their undeserved reputation for being hostile to religion.”
Finally, budgetary constraints brought about by the war in Iraq and irresponsible spending since 2001 will severely limit options. Less money available for anti-discrimination law enforcement means less thorough investigations and longer delays by politically pressured, undervalued, and unsupported federal agencies.
Here’s a prayer that discrimination in God’s name will no longer be the law of the land.