House Allows Religious Discrimination in Head Start Hiring

The House of Representatives, in a mostly party line vote, approved a major reform of the popular Head Start program that would allow religious organizations to participate even if they use faith as a major hiring criterion.

House OKs Faith as Head Start Hiring Issue (AP)

Churches and other religious groups are allowed to receive federal money to provide preschool to poor children. Now, the House says, they should be allowed to hire based on religion. In a broad update of the Head Start program, the House voted Thursday to let preschool providers consider a person’s faith when hiring workers — and still be eligible for federal grants. The Republican-led House said the move protects the rights of religious groups, but Democrats blasted it as discriminatory.

The debate over religion overshadowed the main parts of the bill, which had drawn bipartisan support. Overall, the House bill would insert more competition into Head Start grants, require greater disclosure of how money is spent, and try to improve collaboration among educators in different grades. Only 23 Democrats supported the House bill, which was approved 231-184. The vote on the amendment allowing the religion-based hiring was even tighter. It passed 220-196, with support from 10 Democrats.

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee, said the bill ensures that faith-based centers “aren’t forced to choose between relinquishing their identities or being shut out of the program altogether.”


Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, said the religion provision marred an otherwise strong bill. “That is wrong,” Miller said. “It is a violation of our civil rights laws and it has sunk the chances of making this important bill a truly bipartisan bill.”

This is a classic case of two parts of the Constitution coming into conflict and having to be balanced. Here, the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, both of the First Amendment, clash. If churches aren’t allowed to hire based on faith, then they are being denied the right to exercise their religion–not to mention the non-textual right to freely associate that is implied by the First Amendment. On the other hand, by interfering in church matters in dictating hiring practices–or, conversely, allowing churches to discriminate on the basis of religion while acting as quasi-government agencies–Congress would violate the Establishment Clause.

The House has struck a reasonable balance here. Church groups have proven to be excellent volunteer organizations for Head Start. So long as they don’t discriminate on the basis of faith in which students are permitted into the program or attempt to teach religious doctrine as part of the program, the intermingling of church and state here is virtually non-existent.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rick DeMent says:

    Were in the constitution is there a right to “Free Association”? Which “activist judge” ginned up this non-existent right?

    I’m being funny of course but why is it that there is (according to some) no “non-textual” right to privacy” yet there is a “non-textual” right to free “Free Association”.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Rick: That’s why I labeled it as such. It is indeed a judge-generated “right,” but it’s one that’s generally recognized. I’d say that “association” comes much closer than “privacy” to actually existing in the Constitution, as the privacy rights eluded to are very specific (searches, mostly) whereas the association rights are rather broad (assembly, speech, religious congregation, etc.). Neither are explicitly there, though.

    I generally think the privacy “right” is a good thing, such as in the outcome of Griswold. I just disagree that it is to be found in the Constitution.

  3. legion says:

    So long as they don’t discriminate on the basis of faith …

    And that’s the issue. That discrimination _will_ occur. Not in every churh-run school, of course, but you can’t look at the amount of influence religious groups have in this country today and say there’s even a resonable chance that this can be implemented fairly.

    The House has struck a reasonable balance here.

    I strongly disagree – this is not a balance or compromise of any sort; it’s complete capitulation to the desires of church groups. A ‘balance’ would have involved making the churches play by the same rules as everyone else. Taking Head Start money is _not_ a first amendment issue – if you want to take federal money, you play by federal rules. If you want to hire & fire based on religious views, you can – but _not_ on the taxpayers’ dime.

  4. DL says:

    For those of you that think discrimination is always evil -just wait till Judgment Day when the ACLU and so many baby-killing liberals will be in line with the goats writing lawsuit after lawsuit complaining that God’s separation of people into Heaven and Hell is not only discrimination (We demand quotas as there are too many liberals as goats?)but segregation as well. Don’t look for too many lawyers to help you as goats have little standing before that court.

    PS I discriminate every time I chose one box of cereal over another, or choose to not go down that particular dark alley at midnight or -oh, what’s the use…! The word weasels know what they’re are doing with words -deceiving people!

  5. Rick DeMent says:

    “…but it’s one that’s generally recognized.”

    I agree that it’s generally recognized, but your getting all squishy here. Privacy is also generally recognized at least according to many on the bench and which is “closer” is largely a matter of opinion after all why would anyone need to be “…secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” if privacy is not at least implied. From where I sit this is more of a penumbra then “freedom to peaceably assemble is to the “right of free association”.

    Free association is vastly different from the right to peaceably assemble; these things are not even related. Please understand I’m not saying there is no right to free association, I’m just arguing that your analysis regarding the narrowness and broadness of any given constitutional penumbra could well be interpreted as, “penumbra for things I personally agree with, broad, for those I personally disagree with narrow.”

    Didn’t Roberts say that privacy was protected under the constitution to some extent?

  6. Prohibiting a faith-based school from participating because they’re faith-based would be a clear violation of the free exercise clause.

    Allowing those schools to participate, even if they teach their faith and only hire teachers of their faith, is not establishment of religion. It would be establishment of religion if the government program was favoring religious schools over secular schools, but no one is suggesting doing that.

    The Constitution does not require the establishment of secularism any time the government and people of faith interact.

  7. ken says:

    Any group of kooks can start a religion. All they need to have is some writings, call it the word of God, or the Prophet, or the Angel Moroni, or the Flying Spagetti Monster. Sometimes all they need to have is some really bad science fiction writer as their founder. It’s all hoodoo voodoo.

    And Republican lawmakers want to give taxpayer money to these people? Are they nuts?

    Our country was founded upon a secular belief that people should be free to practice whatever nonsense they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, and that no one else should be forced, through the coercive power of government taxation, to support them.

  8. Our country was founded upon a secular belief…that no one else should be forced, through the coercive power of government taxation, to support them.

    Cool, then I want an exemption from supporting Head Start altogether. And the NEA, and the CPB, and Medicare, and… My tax bill will drop substantially.

    In fact, the Judeo-Christian tradition has been at the foundation of America since Jamestown. The government is under no obligation to ignore that fact.

    The government is not obligated by the new rules to fund every religious group, any more than they’ve ever been obligated to support every secular group that applies for federal funds. You’re raising a strawman, ken.

  9. legion says:

    Prohibiting a faith-based school from participating because they’re faith-based would be a clear violation of the free exercise clause.

    Wrong. Prohibiting a faith-based organization from establishing a school in the first place, an action which requires no granting of tax money, _would_ be a violation. But prohibiting that school from getting tax money _without following the same rules as any other organization_ is not. Your analogy is too broad.

  10. ken says:

    …the Judeo-Christian tradition has been at the foundation of America…

    Not true. The ideals of the enlightenment are what America is based upon.

    Recent relegious history was rife with horrors. Christians were persecuting Jews in Europe and fighting relegious wars amongst their various splinter groups. Depending on who had the upper hand at the time, Catholics in England were burning Prostestants, or Protestants in England were burning Catholics.

    One of the principles our country was founded upon was that relegions should never be allowed to do here what they did in the old country. Freed from the burden of government sponsered relegions most Americans were too practical to care much about relegion one way or another and the churches were helpless to force them. That is exactly the way the founders wanted to keep it.

  11. …the Judeo-Christian tradition has been at the foundation of America…

    Absolutely true. Inarguably true. You’re clearly motivated by animosity toward religion.

  12. ken says:

    Absolutely true. Inarguably true.

    Truth is justified true belief. Your position is certainly not justified on the facts, so not true. That leaves you with belief.

    Do you belief OJ is really searching for the killer?

    How about Iraqi WMD? Can’t seem to find any in the real Iraq. If you believe in them does that make them real?

  13. Your position is certainly not justified on the facts, so not true.

    Nonsense. Read the writings of the founders of Jamestown, the Mayflower Compact, etc…The Founders routinely referenced the Bible, God, religion… The history and traditions of this country are infused with Judeo-Christian influences.

    If you want to continue to argue the earth is flat, knock yourself out.