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.
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 Ã¢€” 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.