White House still figuring out how to balance religion, hiring for faith-based


The Washington Post writes today that the Obama administration is still trying to figure out whether faith-based organizations receiving government funds should be allowed to take religion into account when hiring. The administration decided to judge the issue on a case-by-case basis when it opened the office earlier this year, and the Post reports that it is still studying the issue:

Lawyers in the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the executive branch, are considering a 2007 Bush-era religious freedom memo that carved out an exemption in employment discrimination law, allowing the Justice Department to award $1.5 million to a Christian charity for a gang-prevention effort, according to a legal source. The question, according to a Justice Department source, is not on the front burner for an office grappling with urgent national security and legislative issues.

"Before the Bush years, religious organizations that got money just assumed they had to hire the most qualified person and couldn’t proselytize," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which has written Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to demand action. The letter "presents the golden opportunity to the Department of Justice to reverse clearly erroneous past policy and to start looking at a new, constitutionally based framework."

Some who cast doubt on the Bush administration memo, calling it "flatly erroneous" and "legally suspect," are now aligned with the Obama administration. They include Dawn Johnsen, who has been nominated to lead the OLC, and Martin Lederman, a deputy in the office since January.

Even as groups including Americans United and the ACLU urge Obama to draw a bright line between government funding and religious activity, it remains unclear how sharp a break the president wants on a subject that polarizes audiences as well as many swing voters.

Recommended from JTA