On August 20, what was billed as an “unprecedented” alliance of 130 national organizations wrote President Barack Obama asking an end to federal grants for religious social-service agencies that hire only employees who share their beliefs. The petition denounced the Bush administration Department of Justice’s “erroneous and dangerous” 2007 argument allowing such discrimination. Ninety such groups sent a similar protest to then-Attorney General Eric Holder last year.
This is an important church-state issue that has entangled the Salvation Army, among others, in local situations, and a change in federal policy would certainly be news. Such petitions are a routine feature of interest group maneuvers in Washington, but this particular one gives reporters an up-to-date roadmap of America’s “culture wars.” Like so:
The petition signers’ unnamed opponent is Evangelical Protestantism. The DOJ’s 2007 legal blessing responded to complaints about a $1.5 million federal grant to World Vision for mentoring, tutoring, and job training with “at-risk” youths. Like many evangelical organizations, World Vision famously hires staff members who agree with its religious beliefs and values, including traditional heterosexual marriage.
The endorsers have been regular antagonists of Evangelicalism and also of Catholicism on a variety of issues. Along with many small or obscure masthead organizations the list features well-known advocates for gay, bisexual, and transgender rights (Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal), abortion rights (Planned Parenthood, NARAL), public employee and teachers’ unions (AFSCME, AFT, NEA), the women’s movement (American Association of University Women, NOW, YWCA), sex education (SIECUS) and various liberal causes (ACLU, NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center).
Involvement of the major Jewish “communal” (as distinct from religious) organizations perpetuates their longstanding efforts against job discrimination (American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women), joined here by related interest groups of African-Americans, Arabs, Asians, Hindus, Latinos and Sikhs. Muslim Advocates and Muslims for Progressive Values endorse the appeal, but none of the major Islamic organizations.
Predictably, there’s good representation from entities hostile to organized religion like American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, Secular Coalition for America and Secular Policy Institute, though the Freedom from Religion Foundation is absent from this round.
Then there are those who don’t work against religion but against the “religious right,” including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Interfaith Alliance and People for the American Way.
That brings us to the religious denominations that oppose such religiously-based hiring. Again, Jewish participation is predictable and we find the national apparatus of Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly (but for some reason not its United Synagogue). Equally predictable is the non-involvement of Orthodox Judaism, which rarely unites with the faith’s more liberal branches on socio-political matters. The Unitarian Universalist Association is the only other religious denomination backing this petition.
The Friends Committee on National Legislation signs on (but not the Friends’ religious denominations) and there’s a complicated situation in “mainline” and liberal Protestant churches. National agencies of American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church join the protest, but not these three denominations as such. However, the U.C.C. and the Episcopal Church are affiliated in turn with one of the endorsers, the pro-abortion rights Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Then there are independent caucuses within denominations such as DignityUSA (for gay Catholics), the Disciples Justice Action Network and Methodist Federation for Social Action. We find none of the black church denominations on the petition, only independent groups like African American Ministers in Action.
Upshot: On many “social issues” like this, a sizable and highly disparate movement of activists with some -- but somewhat thin -- religious backing is aligned against a large, and probably larger, body of religious traditionalists.