In the privacy of their prayer breakfasts and retreats, when conservative religious people talk about the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, what do they worry about most?

Not federal money going to Scientologists. Not being told they can't evangelize people they serve at soup kitchens. Not even filling out government paperwork.

Should publicly funded faith-based groups be allowed to discriminate against homosexuals in hiring?
No, it's a civil rights issue.
Yes, if their faith opposes homosexuality.
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It's homosexuals. Conservatives' biggest fear is that by partnering with the federal government, they may lose control over who they are allowed to hire and fire--especially when it comes to gays.

Gay rights may seem an unlikely battlefield for this issue, but it has the potential to sink President Bush's faith-based initiatives altogether. On this issue, Bush faces a frontal assault from both left and right--and satisfying one side ensures that the other will want no part of the plan.

"[Evangelicals] worry about that more than almost any other concern," says John Green, a religion and politics expert at the University of Akron.

"It's not worth getting government funds if we have to hire people diametrically opposed to what we believe," said Janet Folger, national director of the Center for Reclaiming America, an affiliate of Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale. Folger was the architect of a widely publicized full-page newspaper ad campaign three years ago urging homosexuals to change their orientation.

And it's not just evangelicals: Orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics, among others, have similar concerns. Control of who they hire is critical to religious groups' ability to control their message--and to equate that with bigotry is "incredibly reckless," says Nathan Diament, president of the Institute of Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, a Jewish organization

"This is not bigotry," Diament says. "This is religious freedom. It's the right of a religious organization to define itself."

It may become a litmus test issue among liberals as well. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a strong supporter of faith-based action, told Beliefnet recently that he could not support legislation that discriminated against gays. "I feel strongly that we can't adopt a system here that allows religious groups to meet a lower standard of civil rights protection than nonreligious groups," he said.

Gay rights organizations are already organizing to influence the faith-based debate and are sure to redouble their efforts if the new legislation omits protections for gay employees. "If a certain sectarian entity wants to discriminate, I say, 'Go for it,'" says David Elliot, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "but don't use my tax dollars to do it."

This isn't just about raw power politics. Though the legalities are complex, it comes down to a simple, theological question: Is opposition to homosexuality a central tenet of faith for some religions? While courts and politicians don't like to endorse "discrimination" against people, they have so far given groups a great deal of leeway to hire and fire consistent with their basic beliefs.

At stake for the combatants are civil rights on one hand and biblical interpretation on the other. These are not exactly issues that lend themselves to compromise and middle ground.

As the law stands now, conservatives have the upper hand. Religious organizations have wide latitude to hire and fire based on an employee's religious beliefs, says Ira C. Lupu, a George Washington University Law School expert on church-state issues. That goes beyond religious affiliation to include the employee's behavior or values--meaning that a religious organization can fire someone who contradicts the group's religious beliefs, whether by advocating abortion rights, breaking the Sabbath, or being gay. And, Lupu said, the situation does not change if a faith-based organization receives public funding.

This is more than just an academic debate. In October 1998, an employee of the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, a faith-based charity receiving state funds, was fired when it was publicized that she is gay. The former employee, Alicia Pedreira, is suing with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that her termination--and by extension KBHC's public funding--breached the wall of church-state separation.

Last summer, when some state officials wanted to avoid the lawsuit by bowing to the ACLU, the KBHC was ready to sever its financial ties with the state rather than hire gays. Eventually, a compromise was reached: KBHC will keep its government money if the organization, among other things, assumes all costs for this and future lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the theological aspect of the debate is being slugged out in churches nationwide. Essentially, the question hinges on biblical interpretation. To many evangelicals, the Bible's word is straightforward and binding--end of discussion. But the Christian world, and even the evangelical world, is far from uniform on this issue.

"There are very few biblical texts that speak to it [homosexuality], but the few that do are very unambiguous against it," says theologian Richard B. Hays of Duke Divinity School, framing the conservative Christian approach to the issue. (He declined comment on the debate over Bush's faith-based initiatives.) Leviticus, for example, terms homosexuality "an abomination," and in Romans 1, Paul condemns men who "burned in their lust one toward another."

But Marcus Borg, an Oregon State University biblical scholar and author, believes the Bible is the work of humans--the result of how its ancient authors saw the world. And clearly, they opposed homosexuality. Framing the liberal side of the discussion, he points out that generations ago, the Bible was used to justify slavery and women's second-class citizenship. But our understanding of those issues has evolved. So, he asks: "What would be the justification for continuing to see [homosexuality] as ancient Israel saw [it]?"

Victor Paul Furnish, a New Testament scholar at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology, also interprets the relevant biblical passages, but he employs a different strategy. To him, the biblical notion of homosexuality and today's understanding aren't the same. The only same-sex relations St. Paul knew of were lustful, exploitative ones, not the loving, monogamous ones that today's religious people refer to, Furnish says. "What Paul was condemning, I would condemn too."

When Hays speaks to Christian audiences, he emphasizes that if Christians were truly concerned about biblical ethics, they would focus on the poor, healing racism, and making peace. The response is nearly always a standing ovation. "In terms of the Bible's concern for moral issues, [homosexuality] is incredibly minor," he says, adding that to the "overwhelming majority" of Christians, it is equally low on their list of concerns, and many are "sick to death" of it. But the issue is vocally and publicly raised by that minority who seek a revision of traditional church teachings, by the leaders who are forced to respond to them, and by the media.

Even the most conservative leaders on this issue admit that when it comes to the faith-based debate, more than just theology is at play.

"A person's sexuality is a very core part of who and what that person is," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Homosexuality is no more or less important than other biblical dictates, he says, adding that he would fire a heterosexual employee who lives with a partner outside of marriage, or who is a philanderer, just as he would a homosexual.

"Southern Baptists are very clear that someone who is following God's will in life is going to be following Christian sexual ethics," Land says.

But again and again, the debate focuses on homosexuality. And the reason is culture--not theology.

"We're not saying it [homosexuality] is a worse sin than adultery," says Janet Folger of the Center for Reclaiming America. "But you don't see many 'adultery pride' parades."

In other words, society's increasing acceptance of homosexuals has forced conservative Christians to emphasize their opposition to hiring gay people.

"There's not a push for us to hire an abortionist," Folger says. "In the homosexual community, there is movement to say you must believe as we do or we will silence you."

What the government can do as it writes legislation for the faith-based initiative is to slap additional restrictions on faith-based organizations that take federal money. The government can choose to prohibit any FBO receiving public funds from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Carl Esbeck, an assistant to the deputy attorney general attached to the White House faith-based office, said the administration has no plans to do that. Instead, President Bush will incorporate existing civil rights law into whatever legislation comes out of this effort, rather than break new ground.

John J. DiIulio, who heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said Tuesday that the issue of employment discrimination is moot for most of the FBOs that will join the faith-based initiative: They will likely be small programs staffed mostly by volunteers, rather than paid staff.

But that assurance is unlikely to be enough for religious leaders working to influence the emerging legislation. As happened in Kentucky, staff will inevitably be hired and conflicts will arise.

In the eyes of conservative Christians like Folger, common sense dictates that they not be required to employ people who contradict the organization's Christian values. In a favorite and oft-invoked metaphor, evangelicals say it is the same situation as asking Planned Parenthood to hire people who oppose abortion.

To civil- and gay-rights activists, the matter is equally one of common sense. The separation of church and state is one of the most cherished constitutional protections, so the government, in their eyes, should not fund organizations that make employment decisions based on religion.

As President Bush and his advisers formulate the specifics of their faith-based initiatives, they will be forced to grapple with these two opposing visions. And if the resulting federal programs are to include the widest possible portion of the population, they must make room for these two divergent viewpoints, as improbable as that may seem.

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