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Today, with National Press Club bells and whistles, Brookings released “Serving People in Need, Safeguarding Religious Freedom”–a set of recommendations on government-religion partnerships written by E.J. Dionne, WaPo columnist and Brookings senior fellow, and Melissa’s Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School, formerly of the Baptist Joint Committee. As you would expect from those two, it’s an extremely thoughtful and well-meaning effort, often taking excruciating pains to be even-handed and understanding of the two sides in the contentious debate over President Bush’s faith-based initiative. And in that spirit, I urge you all to take equal pains in making your way through it.
On the principal issue of contention, namely, whether religious institutions should be allowed an exemption from anti-discrimination laws in hiring people to perform government-funded work, Dionne and Rogers do not see completely eye to eye, and they sort of punt. Rogers, in keeping with her old-time Baptist separationism, wants no allowance for hiring discrimination. Dionne’s prepared to give it some wiggle room. They end up recommending that the Obama administration set up a commission to study the issue. There are complexities of practice here, but I must say I don’t have much sympathy for the wiggle-room position, much less the Bushian “let them hire only their own kind” approach. The government’s purpose in funding must be secular, so anyone willing to work for that purpose should be eligible to be hired. If the religious institution feels that its religious identity will be watered down by hiring outsiders, then it is asking the government to subsidize its religious identity. And the government shouldn’t be in the business of doing that.
Be that as it may, I predict that this will be an area where Obama sticks to principle. Not only is he on record against permitting such employment discrimination, but a lot of important congressional allies (e.g. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va ) have gone to the mat on this one. Yes, some center-right folks will cry foul, but making the case for not subsidizing religion is not hard–and if, as Dionne and Rogers see it, this is going to be part of a big Obama community-service initiative, establishing faith-based on clearly non-Bushian lines is pretty clearly the way to make hay.