Monday, March 07, 2005

Religious Rights Unit

A long and disturbing article from the LATimes examines a new group within the Department of Justice: the "Religious Rights Unit."

The Salvation Army was accused in a lawsuit of imposing a new religious litmus test on employees hired with millions of dollars in public funds.

When employees complained that they were being required to embrace Jesus Christ to keep their jobs, the Justice Department's civil rights division took the side of the Salvation Army.

Defending the right of an employer using public funds to discriminate is one of the more provocative steps taken by a little-known arm of the civil rights division and its special counsel for religious discrimination.

The Justice Department's religious-rights unit, established three years ago, has launched a quiet but ambitious effort aimed at rectifying what the Bush administration views as years of illegal discrimination against religious groups and their followers.


It's almost as sinister as it looks. A couple of the cases the unit has taken on involve overreaction on the part of school districts. But:
Judging from the cases and investigations the religious unit has launched, the new mission of the Justice Department is overwhelmingly focused on protecting the rights of religious organizations.

Eric Treene, the religious-discrimination special counsel, is the former litigation director of a nonprofit group, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The group has been active in suing schools and local governments on behalf of religious groups.

Treene, one of four special counsels in the civil rights division, has no staff and shares a secretary with two other Justice Department lawyers. But a former senior Justice official describes him as widely influential, bird-dogging cases he thinks the department should throw its weight behind and reaching out to religious groups for bias cases he believes the department should investigate.

The Becket Fund is a conservative organization whose aim is "protecting the free expression of all religious traditions." In practice, that means bromides like this:
Human beings have an inborn thirst for the transcendent. We may not know who, or even if, God is, but we have a natural desire to find out. We are also social animals, eager to form families, gather in clans, display our arts, commemorate the great events of life, and discuss what laws and leaders should govern our communities. What we find in our search for truth unavoidably (and appropriately) informs those social activities.

In short, because the religious impulse and the social impulse are natural to human beings, religious expression is natural to human culture. But courts and bureaucrats often rule that religion belongs entirely in private and so should be purged from public life.

The Becket Fund fights to assure free religious expression in public spaces and public debate. We defend religious ministers who face government sanctions for what they preach from the pulpit, as in Rigdon v. Perry. We sue the government when it singles out religious viewpoints for exclusion from a public forum, as in Tong v. Chicago Park District.

But we defend the government when it’s sued for sponsoring a religiously diverse holiday display, as in ACLU-NJ v. Schundler. And every December, we award the Ebenezer Award -- our lowest honor -- to those responsible for the most ridiculous affront to the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays.

The Becket Fund has also defended a Catholic school being sued by a teacher dismissed for signing a reproductive rights statement.

To be fair, it has also represented a Muslim man who sued the Wisconsin Department of Corrections for unfair restraint on his practices.

Still, to find a Becket Fund alumni running this unit continues a pattern with the Bush administration: the most partisan activists are given control of areas of the government where they are supposed to regulate even-handedly for the broad public good.

That's why the details of the Salvation Army case are particularly bothersome. According to the LATimes:
The Salvation Army case is the boldest initiative in the Justice Department's recent emphasis on religious rights. And the stakes go well beyond the old-line Christian charitable organization.

The department's position in the case — that religious groups should be able to hire or fire people based on their religious views, even when administering publicly funded programs — is a cornerstone of President Bush (news - web sites)'s faith-based initiative. The initiative is channeling hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to churches and other religious groups to deliver social services.


And

In New York, the Salvation Army apparently had long operated without such entanglements, despite a history steeped in religious tradition. The international organization has provided social services to New Yorkers for decades. Its current contracts total about $50 million from the city and state of New York to provide foster care, HIV (news - web sites) counseling and other services.

In 2003, according to a lawsuit filed by more than a dozen workers in its Social Services for Children division, the Salvation Army began requiring employees to divulge information about their faiths, including the churches they attended and their ministers.

They were also called on to embrace a new mission statement — included in job postings and job descriptions — that declared the top goal of the social welfare operation is "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination." The previous mission statement was "to empower each person who enters our doors to live with dignity and hope," and contained no religious references.

Protections against discriminatory employment practices were excised from the employee handbook, and an effort was made to compile a list of homosexual employees, according to the suit.

Nor is this initiative by the Salvation Army aimed at some vague horde of "Godless heathens." It's aimed at anyone who does not toe the SA party line:
The longtime executive director of the social services program, a Lutheran minister, was ousted after voicing objections to the plans, according to the employee complaint.

Ultimately, 18 current and former employees of the social services operation, a number of them in supervisory positions, filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York. Many of them say they are religiously active, but think an important line has been crossed.

"We are not all a bunch of atheists or secular humanists," said one of the plaintiffs, Mary Jane Dessables, who is an elder at her Presbyterian church. But "we are all united in our dismay."


The bottom line:
The Salvation Army has moved to dismiss the case, saying that as a private, nonprofit religious organization it is exempt from antidiscrimination laws. New York officials, also defendants in the suit, say they are not legally responsible for the organization's actions.

The Justice Department weighed in last August, calling the employee suit an affront to "the federal statutory and constitutional rights of religious employers to define their character and maintain their religious integrity." The department said the discrimination claims were "irrelevant."


How can you spin this as anything other than narrow partisanship aimed at rewarding select groups of political friends? It's been apparent for some time that the Bush administration is hellbent on dividing the electorate; it's becoming increasingly clear that they mean to do the same to the church.

Even more chilling, it's becoming apparent that their corporatist economic philosophy and their blindly sectarian philosophy are interacting in new and strange ways. "An affront to the rights of employers?" I can't even come up with a response that doesn't sound ridiculous. These folks almost parody themselves.

This is not about religious integrity. It's cronyism, pure and simple. It's disgusting, and it has no place in Christian practice.

(A disclaimer: while many UCC congregations [and the regional and national offices] have non-discrimination policies, churches are given broad latitude in hiring. I'll defend that standard--but because, and only because, churches do not accept federal money.)

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