<% IssueDate = "5/19/03" IssueCategory = "Viewpoint" %> GayToday.com - Top Story
Republican Job Training Bill: Gays/Lesbians Need Not Apply

By Bill Berkowitz

"Reducing wasteful duplication," "eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy," and "encouraging cooperation" were among the buzz phrases used by House Republicans to sell the Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act, H.R. 1261. The $4 billion bill passed the full House by a party-line 220-204 vote last week after coming out of the Education & the Workforce Committee by a 26-21 vote, "strengthen[s] and streamline[s] job training and adult education programs, providing job seekers with valuable tools and resources as they seek to rejoin the workforce or retrain for better jobs," according to the bill's GOP backers. But that's not all the legislation does: Tucked inside the bill is a provision that allows faith-based organizations to receive government grants and sidestep civil rights laws.

"Committee members are carving out an exemption for discrimination," Joe Conn, a spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told me in a late-April telephone interview (before the House vote). "This is part of an overall agenda that allows religious groups to get public funds and discriminate in hiring while using those funds. It codifies discrimination and rolls back civil rights protections that apply to publicly-funded programs."
Rep. John Boehner
Graphic by GayToday

In a press release after the bill had emerged from the Education and the Workforce Committee, Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) said: "Strengthening and improving programs that help Americans get back to work is essential in this time of war and economic recovery. This important legislation would help improve results for Americans striving to get back to work by streamlining unnecessary bureaucracy, increasing effective cooperation among workforce development partners, and placing increased emphasis on basic skills in adult education programs."

The Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act "reforms and reauthorizes" the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), legislation passed in 1998 "which made significant reforms and improvements to the nation's formerly fragmented and inefficient workforce development and adult education programs," the Press Release reads.

According to the committee press release, state and local governments, trade associations, and workforce groups support the legislation. The Labor Policy Association (LPA), described as "an organization of the senior human resources officers of more than 200 of the nation's largest private sector employers, collectively employing nearly 13 million Americans," is also on board.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao is pushing the bill that would give the right for religious groups to opt out of the bill On May 11, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao issued a statement supporting the bill. While she made no mention of the religious exemption, she urged the Senate to work quickly to pass the legislation.

What's not to like about legislation that appears to be aimed at providing a one-stop delivery system for job-seekers to give them "access to labor market information, job counseling, and job training to help them get back on their feet?"

The problem with the Workforce Investment Act is that it "jeopardizes civil rights and religious freedom because it would roll back protection against discrimination or misuse of government funds by religious organizations," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in an early April Action Alert titled "Stop Congress from Rolling Back Key Civil Rights Protections." For the first time there is legislation "allow[ing] religious organizations involved in federal job training programs to discriminate according to religion when hiring staff for these taxpayer-funded services."

The ACLU: "The Act must not allow taxpayer-funded discrimination. Unless Congress explicitly prohibits discrimination, the Bush Administration has made it clear that it will allow religious organizations that take federal funds to discriminate against applicants for jobs on the basis of religion, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, HIV status or any other characteristic that a religious organization finds objectionable. All federally funded employers must protect, not gut, the civil rights of all Americans."

Interestingly enough, neither of the two House Education & the Workforce Committee-issued Fact Sheets dated April 9th mentioned civil rights issues or religious organizations. One section of the Fact Sheet titled "Eligible Training Provider Provisions" referred to "training provider requirements [that] are overly burdensome," and giving States "the authority to determine what standards, information, and data will be required for eligible training providers." And another section, titled "Increased Opportunities for Training," said that "the bill provides for greater flexibility in the delivery of core, intensive and training services."

What the Fact Sheet called "overly burdensome" requirements may be existing civil rights laws prohibiting organizations from discriminatory practices if they receive government grants. Exemptions are outlined in Section 124 of the bill. Titled NONDISCRIMINATION [bill's caps], it says: "Section 188(a)(2) is amended -- (1) by striking `No' and inserting (A) IN GENERAL- Except as provided in subparagraph (B), no'; and (2) by adding the following subparagraph: (B) EXEMPTION FOR RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS- Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to recipients of financial assistance under this title that is a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society, with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities. Such recipients shall comply with the other requirements contained in subparagraph (A)."

The attempt to sidestep anti-discrimination measures is particularly attention-grabbing in light of the two-plus-year controversy surrounding the president's faith based initiative -- the centerpiece of his "compassionate conservative" domestic agenda. Recently, the Senate finally passed of The Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act, a stripped-down version of the administration's faith-based package that had been mired in legislative gridlock because right-wing legislators insisted that provisions allowing religious-based organizations to disregard state and local ordinances against discriminatory hiring practices be included in any final bill.

This issue of exempting religious organizations has surfaced before: A few months after the president announced his faith-based initiative the Washington Post revealed that top administration officials were trying to solicit support from the Salvation Army by assuring the charity that any White House-supported legislation would allow religious organizations to circumvent state and local laws barring discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of religion and sexual orientation. The Post's revelations were met with denials from both the Salvation Army and the administration, but they didn't go unnoticed by Democratic leaders in the Senate. They effectively back-benched the initiative until the anti-discrimination exemption was removed.

At a May 7 Press Conference, Rabbi David Saperstein pointed out that "Religious beliefs do not change the way that a staff member teaches résumé writing or helps file claims for unemployment insurance. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists use the same criteria to determine eligibility for Welfare-to-Work programs."

These days, GOP congressional leaders are "pushing to add discriminatory language to every social-program-legislation that comes up," Joe Conn of Americans United said. "Americans United is monitoring these faith-based grants to see if they are being used in a discriminatory way. If anyone feels they are being denied a job on religious grounds they should contact our legal department," Conn added.

The Workplace Reinvestment and Adult Education Act is not a done deal. It now heads to the Senate where, like the president's faith-based initiative, it should be revised and the discrimination exemption removed.
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Related Sites
American Civil Liberties Union

The ACLU is calling on the Senate to "preserve current civil rights protections in federal job-training programs

U.S. Department of Labor