Judge: Use of Religion in Hiring Decisions OK

A federal court in New York has ruled that the Salvation Army may hire and fire employees according to their religious beliefs — even though it receives most of its money for social services from the government. The ruling earlier this week is considered a major court victory for the Bush administration.

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A major court victory for the Bush administration's faith-based initiative. A federal court in New York ruled that the Salvation Army may fire and hire employees according to their religious beliefs, even though it receives most of its money for social services from the government. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

For years the Salvation Army did not make employees wear their faith on their sleeves. Although it is an evangelical Christian church, it hired people who adhered to other religions to do its social service work, things like foster care programs, HIV services and child care. But two years ago the Salvation Army began to vet its employees. They were required to report where they went to church and to agree with the Army's mission--that is, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Several people quit and sued the Salvation Army and the state and local agencies that funded it. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says it's fine for a church to hire or preach any way it wants.

Ms. DONNA LIEBERMAN (Executive Director, New York Civil Liberties Union): But when a church takes on the responsibilities of government, then it can't discriminate against people based on their religion. It can't impose a religious litmus test on its employees; it can't require them to sign a loyalty oath, not on the taxpayers' dime.

HAGERTY: `Not so fast,' says federal Judge Sidney Stein. Stein ruled this week that it would be, quote, "untenable for the Constitution to require a religion to water down its beliefs simply because it accepts government money." Bob Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, says this ruling disperses a big cloud hanging over the president's faith-based initiative, the question of whether a church that accepts government contracts must adhere to government rules barring discrimination.

Professor BOB TUTTLE (George Washington University): And with this ruling, the court has sided with the Bush administration. The court says, `No, when you take government money, at least if you're a religious organization, you don't become an arm of the government. You can continue to prefer people of your own faith.'

HAGERTY: Tuttle says the White House should be celebrating. Jim Towey, who heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is doing just that.

Mr. JIM TOWEY (Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives): Oh, I think this is going to send a resounding signal out there in America because here you have an organization, the Salvation Army, that got 95 percent of its money from government to do its social service work. And the court held that they were allowed to hire on a religious basis, even though nearly the entire entity was funded by government.

HAGERTY: Towey says if the court had gone the other way, the entire faith-based initiative could have been jeopardized. And he says the ruling comes at a critical time. After Hurricane Katrina, he says, religious groups rushed to the scene, and the government not only plans to reimburse some of them but wants them to play a larger role.

Mr. TOWEY: I think it's going to bolster an awareness by governors and mayors that it's safe to partner with faith-based groups. I think it's going to tell faith-based groups, `Oh, we can do this work without having to secularize and sell our soul in order to provide a public service.' It's a complete vindication of President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiative.

HAGERTY: The New York Civil Liberties Union is considering an appeal. It's worried that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent as the Bush administration gives more and more federal dollars to churches. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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