Advocates for Head Start are justifiably concerned that the fight over religious hiring rights will jeopardize the reauthorization of the Head Start program this Congress. Head Start is too important to be held hostage to such naked partisan politics. JR
September 16, 2005
To: Education and Legal Affairs Reporters, Editors, and Columnists
From: Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD)
RE: Government-Funded Religious Discrimination in Head Start Programs
This week, the House of Representatives will debate legislation reauthorizing the historic anti-poverty Head Start preschool education program – which has helped millions of disadvantaged children by providing access to quality preschool education programs. The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved this measure, H.R. 2123, the School Readiness Act, by a vote of 48-0 on May 18, 2005. Despite bipartisan, unanimous support for the bill in his Committee, Chairman, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), with the support of the Bush Administration, has announced that he intends to offer an amendment on the floor of the House to repeal existing, longstanding Head Start provisions which prohibit religious organizations and churches from discriminating on the basis of religion when hiring or firing staff for positions within this federally-funded program.
The House of Representatives has never voted to repeal existing civil rights protections in a floor amendment, and here it is being done without the benefit of committee hearings, debate, and testimony from experts. This unwelcome action would also undermine the existing broad, bipartisan support for reauthorizing Head Start, one of the most heralded anti-poverty programs in the nation’s history.
Head Start is a widely-acclaimed early childhood education program established in 1965. This anti-poverty program serves close to one million disadvantaged preschool children in hundreds of communities across the country. The program has also been a ladder out of poverty for many disadvantaged parents who have become employed as teachers and staff after having first served as volunteer teacher aides in their children’s classroom.
Since 1972, agencies that receive government funding for Head Start – including religious organizations and houses of worship that host Head Start programs – have been prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion when hiring or firing staff for positions within the federally-funded program. These existing non-discrimination requirements have a history of bipartisan support, and were originally signed into law by President Richard Nixon. The current anti-discrimination language was included in the 1981 Head Start reauthorization bill, signed into law by President Ronal Reagan. These same civil rights protections have been included in every Head Start reauthorization since then – in 1984, 1986, 1990, 1994, and 1998. For 33 years, these fundamental non-discrimination protections have worked well, allowing thousands of Head Start programs in communities throughout the country to flourish while maintaining constitutional and civil rights safeguards against religious tests for employment in federally-funded programs.
The Boehner Religious Discrimination Amendment is Unnecessary
Chairman Boehner has said that he is “committed to adding language to this bill that will ensure faith-based organizations can compete for federal Head Start grants without surrendering their constitutionally-protected right to take religion into account in their hiring practices.” But faith-based organizations do not have a constitutionally-protected right to use federal funds to discriminate on the basis of religion in government-funded positions.
Under current law, faith-based and secular organizations are already equally eligible for Head Start funding. More than five percent of all Head Start programs are administered by houses of worship or religiously-affiliated organizations. These programs currently operate effectively -- and manage to do so without making employment decisions based on the religious beliefs of their teachers and parent volunteer. This success is due, in part, to the fact that these organizations are required to abide by strong constitutional and anti-discrimination safeguards -- protecting beneficiaries from unwanted proselytizing and protecting employees in positions funded by these federal programs from religious discrimination.
The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (members included below) supports the right of churches and synagogues to perform their religious mission with their own private funds. But federally-funded religious discrimination is always wrong. It is especially damaging in the context of the enormously influential Head Start program.
The Boehner Religious Discrimination Amendment Raises Constitutional Concerns
This proposed change runs afoul of considerations underlying the First Amendment’s prohibitions against the use of direct government funding to promote religious beliefs. When Head Start programs operated by faith-based organizations discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring for government-funded positions, the government becomes associated with promotion of a religious mission in a manner that the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent.
The Boehner Religious Discrimination Amendment Would Damage Head Start Programs.
If Congress approves such an amendment, teachers and staff working at Head Start programs housed in religious organizations could immediately be fired because of their religion. Tens of thousands of already at-risk children could lose their teachers. And Head Start could lose thousands of parent volunteers essential to the success of the program merely because those parents do not share the religious beliefs of the host federally-funded religious organization.
The Boehner Religious Discrimination Amendment is Divisive and Jeopardizes Head Start Reauthorization
The Head Start bill, in its current form, has wide, bipartisan support. The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the reauthorization legislation by a unanimous vote – retaining existing civil rights and anti-discrimination provisions. These anti-discrimination provisions have enjoyed bipartisan support since President Richard Nixon signed them into law in 1972. Allowing religious discrimination in Head Start programs is controversial -- and will undoubtedly divide legislators as efforts to reauthorize the program move forward.
Two years ago, Congress was unsuccessful in an attempt to reauthorize Head Start due to an inability to reach consensus on a number of controversial amendments – including one similar to the Boehner Amendment – which was not included in the Senate version of this legislation. At that time, Members of the House engaged in heated debate over the anti-discrimination provisions, which had been eliminated during Education and the Workforce Committee markup. During the 108th Congress, on July 25, 2003, the House defeated an amendment, offered by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), to reinstate these civil rights provisions by a vote of 231-199, with only four Republicans voting to reinsert the anti-discrimination provisions and only seven Democrats voting against the amendment. The Senate reauthorization bill stalled; the Committee-approved bill was never received a vote on the floor.
In this Congress, the Boehner religious discrimination amendment would unnecessarily politicize what has been a remarkably bipartisan effort to reauthorize Head Start. On two previous occasions Rep. Boehner has voted to affirm the current anti-discrimination language as part of the Head Start reauthorization (the 1994 and 1998 reauthorizations). But now, as the Bush Administration aggressively promotes its Faith-Based Initiative, the Republican majority is seeking to repeal these longstanding civil rights provisions.
The notion that efforts to eliminate these civil rights provisions are politically motivated was recently affirmed in testimony by an unlikely source -- David Kuo, former Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In testimony, before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources on June 21, 2005, Kuo stated: “[M]any members of the President’s own party expressed equal parts apathy and antipathy towards this agenda. Money for the poor? Why, it will just get wasted, they said. We just need to cut the funds and let the private sector take over. We don’t need more funds, all we really need to do is make sure that we have a huge political fight over religious charities’ right to hire and fire based on their own faith. That way, as I have heard time and time again, Republicans will be seen as fighting for religions and Democrats will be seen as fight against it.”
Advocates for Head Start are justifiably concerned that the fight over religious hiring rights will jeopardize the reauthorization of the Head Start program this Congress. Head Start is too important to be held hostage to such naked partisan politics.
Proselytizing in Head Start Programs is Clearly Illegal