Catholic bishops defend hiring rights of religious organizations

President and CEO of World Vision U.S. Richard Stearns
President and CEO of World Vision U.S. Richard Stearns

.- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops added its support on Wednesday to an initiative that seeks to protect religious organizations' right to hire and maintain employees on the basis of their faith.

Over 100 leaders of various religious groups signed the letter distributed this week to all members of Congress, urging them to oppose provisions in HR 5466. The signatories to Wednesday's letter contend that parts of the law will unfairly burden religious charities that receive federal grants, by forcing them to make staffing decisions that contradict or disregard their beliefs.

The coalition of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders includes the evangelical charity World Vision, the Salvation Army, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and the activist organization Sojourners among many others.

In their letter to Congress, they warned that developing efforts to undermine the religious identities of charities and other faith-based organizations “would be catastrophic to our efforts to serve those in need, and to all who value the protection for religious liberty.”

The letter reminded the members of Congress that the right of religious organizations to base their hiring decisions on principles of faith was specifically protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act under President Lyndon Johnson.

Then, in 2007, the Department of Justice cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, as the basis for its judgment that religious charities which receive federal grants do not forfeit the right to hire on the basis of their beliefs.

The signatories to Wednesday's letter affirmed that federal grant money may not be used for proselytism or activities of an “inherently religious” nature. However, they maintained that the matter of staffing and hiring decisions was a separate question, having to do with their essential identity and basic rights.

Anthony R. Picarello Jr., who signed the religious leaders' letter to Congress on behalf of the USCCB as its general counsel, recalled the long history of allowing religious organizations to make staffing decisions on the basis on their foundational beliefs.

“The law has long protected the religious freedom of both the people who receive government-funded services, and the groups that provide the services – long before President Obama, and long before President Bush,” the USCCB's general counsel commented in a statement accompanying the letter.

Richard Stearns, the president and CEO of World Vision U.S., warned that the pending house bill, along with other calls for Congress to eliminate religious hiring exemptions during its fall session, would jeopardize countless charities, “and, more importantly, the people they serve.”

“Too much is at stake,” he said, to allow charities' hiring rights to be sacrificed for political gain. “Our nation needs religious charities. For decades, we have relied on and benefited from religious charities receiving federal grants.” Undermining such groups' essential identity, he continued, is a step towards eliminating them entirely.

Picarello, speaking on behalf of the USCCB, agreed that both religious liberty and the welfare of millions of people are being endangered.

“Stripping away the religious hiring rights of religious service providers violates the principle or religious freedom,” he said, “and represents bad practice in the delivery of social services.”


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