re-printed from The New York Times
President Obama promised in his campaign to preserve President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative aimed at helping social service programs sponsored by religious organizations win federal grants and contracts. He also promised a vitally important change: groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to hire employees on the basis of their religion.
The idea was to prevent discrimination and preserve the boundary between church and state. But Mr. Obama has not made good on the promise. His February executive order revamping the White House office for religion-based and neighborhood programs left untouched a 2002 presidential directive authorizing religious-oriented programs that receive federal financing to hire and fire on religious grounds.
Also left untouched was a constitutionally suspect 2007 memo concluding that the government cannot order religious groups not to discriminate as a condition of federal financing — even in programs like Head Start, where religious discrimination is outlawed. The memo, based on a far-fetched interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. That is the same outfit that wrote the memos authorizing torture.
A coalition of 58 religious, educational and civil liberties groups is now seeking to reverse the 2007 memo. A group letter last month to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. asked him to direct the current Office of Legal Counsel to review and withdraw the memo. Mr. Holder should do so, and Mr. Obama should revise his February executive order to include the anti-discrimination language that he omitted the first time around.
As a candidate, Mr. Obama drew the right line. Effective social service programs should not be ineligible for federal dollars just because they have a religious affiliation. But they should be required to abide by the same anti-discrimination laws as everyone else. Public money should not be used to pay for discrimination.