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Not to beat a dead horse, but what may have happened to misdirect the AP on Obama’s faith-based proposal was that an unnamed senior campaign adviser told reporter Jennifer Loven: “Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities.” This is a backwards way of saying that Obama proposes not to permit religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion for the publicly funded portions. It’s simply the law that a church can hire, say, its pastor based on religion. What sent up the red flag was Loven’s declaration, in her story‘s lede, that “to support [religious institutions’] ability to hire and fire based on faith” was a “move sure to cause controversy.”
Here’s how publicly funded faith-based social service provision has been organized since the Great Society programs of the 1960s. If a religious institution wants to do a publicly funded program—say elder housing—it sets up a separate 501 (c)(3) and operates it under the prevailing non-discrimination rules. Or if your church takes public funds to do an after-school education program, then the people you hire to staff it cannot be hired on religious grounds. You can certainly imagine situations where, for example, a relatively small church wants to hire a youth pastor but can only afford one half time, so wants to be able to make that a full-time position and so supplements it by making him head of the publicly funded after-school program. That’s not allowed (unless, of course, you open the youth pastor position to people of any religious persuasion). What Bush tried to do was change longstanding rules. What Obama’s proposing is to adhere to them. Zeleny and Luo have this just right in today’s New York Times. The evangelical supporters of the Bush program are unhappy, as they should be.