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President Obama Discusses Religious Hiring Discrimination Policy at Town Hall Meeting E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Friday, 22 July 2011

In a town hall meeting this morning at the University of Maryland, President Obama was asked about the issue of religious hiring discrimination by tax-funded organizations. Since his election - and despite what seemed to be a clear statement during the campaign - the Obama administration has refused to issue a blanket ban on discrimination by such groups using tax money, preferring instead to deal with each such issue on a "case-by-case basis."

This is the first time I can recall the President being asked about this issue directly in public. His answer indicated that despite the efforts of religious liberty advocates like the Baptist Joint Committee to convince him otherwise, he seems quite satisfied with the current policy. My rough transcript of the Q and A is below:

Question: I'm an atheist. And in Zanesville, Ohio in 2008, you asserted that no organization receiving taxpayer funds would be able to discriminate In hiring or firing based on a person's religion. However, you have not rescinded the Executive Order that permits that type of discrimination. In a time of economic hardship, when it is difficult for a person to get a job based on her skills, what would you say to a woman who has been denied employment because of her religion, or lack of religious beliefs, by a taxpayer-funded organizations.

President Obama: Well, this is a very difficult issue, but a more narrow one than I think might be implied. It's very straightforward that people shouldn't be discriminated against for race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. What has happened is that there has been a carve-out, dating back to President Clinton's presidency, for religious organizations in their hiring for particular purposes.

This is always a tricky part of the First Amendment. On the one hand, the First Amendment ensures that there is freedom of religion. On the other hand, we want to make sure that religious bodies are abiding by general laws. Where this issue has come up is in fairly narrow circumstances where for example you've got a faith-based organization that's providing certain services they consider part of their mission, to be promoting their religious views, but they may have a daycare center associated with the organization, or they may be running a food pantry. And so then the question is, does a Jewish organization have to hire a non-Jewish person as part of that organization.

Now, I think that the balance we have tried to strike is to say that if you are offering - if you have set up a non-profit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work then you have to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices. If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a mosque or a church, then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.

It doesn't satisfy everybody. I will tell you a lot of faith-based organizations think that we are too restrictive in how we define those issues. There are others, like you obviously, who think we are not restrictive enough. I think we've struck the right balance so far, but this is something we continue to be in dialogue with faith-based organizations about to try to make sure that their hiring practices are as open and inclusive as possible.

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