The Obama administration has disappointed secular activists on many an occasion (and, to be fair, it’s also done right by us here and there), but there’s probably no more overt snubbing of the secular agenda, such as it is, than the president’s failure to act on this infamous campaign promise from 2008 regarding “faith-based initiatives,” which I like to think of as “Zanesvillegate.” (No one else calls it this.) Let’s all say it together:
If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion. Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.
But the practice of discrimination in hiring still goes on without the administration doing a thing about it, all these years (and all of our complaints) later.
Last week, a huge coalition of 90 groups, including my own, the Center for Inquiry, signed on to a letter that aimed at a narrower example of this kind of abuse of federal funds. Recently unearthed is a 2007 Bush administration Justice Department memo that says, explicitly, that religious organizations getting federal money, in this case as part of the funds available through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), can in fact prefer “co-religionists” in hiring and firing. That memo remains as a rule in effect to this day.
Especially galling is that this very subject, whether the VAWA funds could be used by groups who still want to discriminate based on religion, was specifically debated by Congress, and VAWA was passed with a prohibition on such discrimination. But the Bush-era memo is being used to override that part of the law.
So a good question is “why?” Who does the Obama administration still need to mollify by leaving this intact? So far, they’re not saying.