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Craig Parshall, General Counsel


Crippling Our Faith-Based Groups

September 22, 2010

The SAMHSA Modernization Act of 2010 (H.R. 5466), sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), is now pending before the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. Take note: this bill represents a serious assault on non-profit faith groups as it threatens to cripple faith-based humanitarian and charitable organizations. To me, that seems to be a mega-leap in logic. In an age where the American people seem to be telling the federal government to stop spending, and the government’s counter-argument is that our society is hurting for services, why in the world would we want to cripple the faith-based charities that provide so many valuable social services at either no cost to taxpayers, or at minimal cost? Faith-based groups are famous for providing local social services that are many times more effective than those provided by the Feds, and at a fraction of the cost. But all of that seems to be lost on the drafters of H.R. 5466. This legislation states that any religious organization that either receives federal grant money or is part of any cooperative arrangement of any kind with the federal government is prohibited from hiring employees on the basis of religious beliefs.

Right now, H.R. 5466 targets faith groups working in the mental health and substance abuse fields. (Teen Challenge, the superbly successful drug rehabilitation ministry, is a good example of the latter.) But our reliable information is that this bill is just a “trial balloon,” and that some Members of Congress would like to expand the concept so that all faith-based non-profit groups will soon lose the ability to hire on the basis of religious criteria. In other words, groups like NRB member World Vision would have to hire atheists, or members of other religions, to administer their Christian Gospel-oriented relief work.

But does the First Amendment require this kind of law? Jamais de la vie!...as the French would say. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated this very subject in June of 2007 and concluded that these kinds of prohibitions imposed against religious organizations would unduly burden the religious freedoms of faith-based groups. Justice Department lawyers concluded that not only did the Establishment Clause not require this kind of hostility against faith groups, but that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) actually requires that faith-based organizations be permitted the right to hire only those who share their religious beliefs. How ironic that while there are so many excellent non-profit Christian groups that feed the hungry, help the oppressed, and lift-up the crippled, Congress might try to starve, oppress, and cripple those same organizations with bad legislation like H.R. 5466.