One of the most controversial parts of Obama’s faith-based plan – and Bush’s – was the question of whether faith-based charities could hire or fire people on the basis of religion. I wroter earlier that there’s less here than meets the eye but there are some important principles at stake.
First, there are some points that people actually agree on. A religious group can hire and fire people based on their faith for pretty much whatever they want, if they’re not taking government federal money.

Also, a religious group can get government funds and still hire by faith for anything related to “ministerial functions” (i.e. worship, Sunday school etc).
The question is whether that group can discriminate by faith for other functions. A Catholic Church is surely allowed to only hire Catholics to teach the Sunday school – everyone agrees on that — but can they turn down a protestant who’s applied to work at the soup kitchen.
The reason this doesn’t come up that often is that most faith-based charities decided that they want to reach as many needy as possible and that for most activities, being of that faith doesn’t matter. If the YMCA is helping inner city youth get off the streets, it’s not important that the basketball coach be Christian.
But sometimes it is. There are some faith-based programs where religion is central to success. A prison ministry might teach inmates that they can turn around their lives because of Christ’s love. It’s hard to convey that message without mentioning religion or without having the volunteer be Christian.
“The reality is an Orthodox Jewish group ceases to be Orthodox if they have to hire atheists or Southern Baptists,” said Jim Towey, the former head of the program under Bush. “What Senator Obama is saying is groups will have to secularize if they play ball with government and receive federal funding, and that flies in the face of what many small groups want.”
I’m sympathetic to the conservative argument on this, up to a point. Some programs really will lose something special if they secularize their approach. Sometimes it’s not jsut about the soup; it’s also about the Spirit. And if Obama wants especially to help the small groups, aren’t these the ones most likely to have faith pretty intertwined with with they do (and least likely to want to hire a lawyer to help them navigate the rules?)
But here’s my question: if that’s the case, why take the money? Why “play ball” as Towey suggests? What’s wrong with having government money go to those that have a secular mission and private money go to those that don’t? Why the compulsion to force government into doing what it’s not good at and which may do harm?
Conservatives are acting as if it’s discriminatory for the government to say, “there are some thing the government shouldn’t spend money on.” Didn’t that used to be the conservative position? I remember that liberals used to argue that if abortion is legal then the federal government had an obligation to fund it through Medicaid. But that never made sense to me. Just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it always makes sense to compel taxpayers to fund it.
Here’s an example for conservative Christians to ponder: what if a Muslim group had an effective prison ministry program emphasizing prayer and Qur’an study. In fact, they could double the number of prisoners they taught the Qur’an if only they had more money. How do you feel about your tax dollars going to help spread the Muhammad’s teachings?
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