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Push To Investigate Bush’s Faith-Based Office Puts Jewish Groups in Quandary

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has been a thorn in the side of church-state watchdogs since its creation in 2001, but when a network of civil rights organizations urged Congress to investigate the office last week, a number of liberal Jewish groups declined to join.

Last Friday, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination — a 70-member umbrella group that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women and AFL-CIO — sent a letter asking for a review of Bush’s faith-based initiative to Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. But after leaders of the coalition rejected a request by the American Jewish Congress to add “nuance” to the document in several places, the letter went unsigned by several major Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah and the Union for Reform Judaism.

“We didn’t think it was a bad letter, but there were things we would have written differently, and we just didn’t have time to go through [it],” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. Of the 13 Jewish groups that are formally members of the coalition, only three — the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — signed on.

The relative absence of Jewish groups from the CARD letter offers a glimpse of a broader disagreement that is bubbling up among liberals as they stake out a new approach to constitutional issues in a post-Bush era. While many on the left believe that Republican policies have damaged the wall between church and state, some progressive religious groups are also quietly wondering if the backlash might go too far. The area of employment is particularly sensitive for Jewish groups, which do not want Jews and other religious minorities to face unlawful discrimination, but also want to defend Jewish institutions, such as federations, that have for decades accepted government money for social programs while recruiting Jews for certain staff positions.

In the wake of Bush, “everything is much more sensitive now, and people are looking more carefully,” at hiring practices, said Marc Stern, general counsel of the AJCongress. “My position is that [religious groups don’t have] carte blanche to take government funding and discriminate. On the other hand, just because United Jewish Communities gets some government grant, that doesn’t mean the Pope has the right to be the head.”

Critics of the Faith-Based Initiative are more reliant on congressional action than ever, in the wake of a recent ruling by the Supreme Court that limits the ability of taxpayers to sue government agencies over alleged violations of the Establishment Clause. While a representative for Waxman told the Forward that the congressman has yet to schedule oversight hearings, his staff met in August with the church-state activists associated with CARD.

Members of the CARD coalition who spoke with the Forward were united about the need for an investigation into alleged partisanship and lack of proper monitoring at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In a November 2 letter to Waxman, they wrote that they were concerned that the program “may have been utilized to serve partisan political goals; may violate federal regulations, laws and the Constitution; and may lack proper monitoring.”

At the same time, however, the coalition contains a range of views on how hard to push back against the administration’s position that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act supersedes other federal statutes that could otherwise prohibit religious groups from discriminating in hiring if they receive government funds.

In one recent case, the Department of Justice ruled that RFRA permits the Christian charity World Vision to discriminate in hiring staff for a program funded by the federal Safe Streets Act. That act, like other federal programs such as Head Start, requires grant recipients to hire staff without discriminating on the basis of religion.

While some groups may not have signed the CARD letter due to its quick turnaround time, AJCongress made its reservations known. An e-mail exchange obtained by the Forward shows that in the days prior to the finalization of the CARD letter, Marc Stern of the AJCongress sent a list of suggested changes to the Jewish groups and the group chairing the coalition, Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Stern told the Forward that he agreed with the general outlines of the letter but was concerned by its insistence that the Bush administration was pushing a “far-fetched interpretation” of RFRA. While generally agreeing that religious groups should be restricted from taking government money if they discriminate in hiring, Stern said he worries that an absolutist interpretation of this position could affect Jewish groups, including Jewish federations that house secular social-service programs, as well as nursing home facilities that serve the Jewish community and receive government money.

Others in the coalition disagreed.

“The coalition will not agree to nuance or take out a section criticizing the current Administration for instructing providers that they do not need to comply with” other existing civil rights laws because “they think that RFRA gives them an out,” wrote Aaron Schuham, legislative affairs director for Americans United, in an e-mail responding to Stern.

“As a result, we will leave AJCongress off the sign-on letter,” he added.


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