By Ilana Stern
“If 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,” explained then presidential-hopeful Barack Obama while discussing his proposed changes to the controversial “faith-based” initiative on the campaign trail in Ohio in 2008.
In the two years that have passed since his first national address about federal funding for religious social services, Obama’s inaction has been deeply disappointing. The misguided policies of the Bush era remain in place, and the president has yet to curb publicly subsidized religious discrimination.
Well, now’s his chance to make right.
World Relief, a publicly funded evangelical Christian charity, has enacted a new H.R. policy: all new employees must be Christian. The decision to discriminate against qualified job applicants on the basis of religion is blatantly biased and directly challenges the Obama administration to act.
President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, chartered in 2009, insists that the priorities of the office be carried out “in a way that upholds the Constitution” by respecting the separation of church and state. In situations where claims of religious discrimination are levied against organizations that receive federal grants, the administration has said decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.
In this case, World Relief’s shameful attempt to uses tax dollars to fund job bias must be stopped. More than 65 percent of the organization’s budget comes from federal funds, and the rest is accrued through private donations.
Some foundations have already refused to renew annual grants to World Relief due to its new hiring policy, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State urges the federal government to follow that responsible course.
Even some of World Relief’s employees are outraged by the hiring bias.
“I believe Jesus would not promote a policy of discrimination,” stated the organization’s former legal specialist Trisha Teofilo.
Echoing Teofilo’s sentiments, coworker Delia Seeburg said the new policy is “ridiculously wrong and un-Christian.” A senior vice president for World Relief’s Baltimore office has confirmed that Seeburg is among the many employees who have already left World Relief in protest.
While current non-Christian employees are not going to be categorically terminated, they risk losing their jobs if they refuse to sign a statement of faith affirming the organization’s mission statement: “to follow Jesus by living holy, humble and honest lives.”
“To ask us to change who we are, it’s not right, not in the country of the United States of America — the land of the free,” stated Mohammed Zeitoun, a Muslim employment counselor looking to leave World Relief in favor of an organization where he will be valued for his hard work rather than condemned for his personal faith.
On Monday, President Obama will be throwing the first pitch of the baseball season at the Washington Nationals’ home opener. We implore his administration to also step up to the plate and make good on its promise to end federal funding of religious discrimination.
Mr. President, let’s stop striking out and start swinging for the fences.