The Faith-Based Initiative

The federal government has adopted federally funded employment policies in three main ways:

  • Charitable Choice— Starting in the 1990s, Congress included provisions in a few key social service programs that eliminated many of the vital church-state protections that traditionally applied to government partnerships with faith-based social service organizations. Among other things, this language, called “charitable choice,” allows faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion while using government funds.

We continue to fight to remove this language from these statutes and to prevent the insertion of similar provisions into other federal social service programs.

  • The Faith-Based Initiative— In 2002, President George W. Bush signed an executive order to exempt faith-based contractors from a longstanding prohibition on employment discrimination by federal contractors, permitting religious hiring discrimination. The Bush Administration regulations also sanctioned religious employment discrimination in nearly all federally funded social service programs, such as those that provide services for at-risk youth and job training.

President Barack Obama has maintained these policies, but we continue to urge him to take steps to roll them back. 

  • The Legal Opinion— Because a few social service programs explicitly prohibit religious hiring discrimination, the Bush Administration needed to take another step in addition to the s executive order and new regulations. To reach those programs, the Bush Administration issued a legal opinion that claims that faith-based organizations that receive federal grants to carry out social service programs have a right under RFRA to engage in hiring discrimination with those grant funds—even if the law creating those programs explicitly prohibits employment discrimination.

The Obama Administration has failed to rescind this policy and continues to permit hiring discrimination in government-funded social service programs that explicitly bar such discrimination, such as the programs implementing the Violence Against Women Act.

In 2015, we joined 130 other organizations to request that the Obama Administration review this legal opinion.

During his term in office, President Obama rejected arguments that he should exempt faith-based federal contractors from bars on LGBTQ hiring discrimination. In July 2014, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ employees. Before he signed the executive order, some groups urged the President to include a provision that would exempt faith-based contractors from this new rule. He wisely rejected their request. Nonetheless, some are now arguing that RFRA allows faith-based organizations to ignore the executive order’s nondiscrimination protections.

We joined 98 organizations to urge the Obama Administration to ensure faith-based contractors abide by the same non-discrimination requirements that apply to all other contractors.