© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003
To get a job as a residential counselor/houseparent at the United Methodist Children's Home in Decatur, Ga., you have to be at least 21 years old, a high school graduate and "a professing Christian." The job announcement goes on to explain that while non-Christians "have done much good in our world," (Gee, thanks) the Children's Home is "an agency of a Christian Church" and in order to preserve that identity, only Christians will be hired.
You have to appreciate the honesty here. The Children's Home makes no bones about it. If you are the wrong faith, your experience and abilities are irrelevant.
We Americans generally like to consider ourselves religiously tolerant and, as such, we may bristle at the exclusionary hiring practices of the Children's Home. After all, it isn't advertising for a pastor, where such a stricture would be warranted. Even so, another aspect of our society's tolerance is a credo allowing religions to make rules for themselves without government interference. Federal antidiscrimination law, for example, grants religious institutions a special exemption so they may exclusively hire followers of their faith, even when the positions to be filled have little or nothing to do with directing worship services.
The famous case on point is that of the Utah janitor at a Mormon Church-affiliated gymnasium who was fired for refusing to tithe 10 percent of his income. The U.S. Supreme Court said granting the church this kind of power over its employees' religious practices was okay.
But what the Children's Home is doing isn't quite analogous to the Mormon case. The Children's Home wants to be free to hire Christians only and it wants taxpayers to pay for its programs -- a formula that has so enamored President Bush that he is trying to repeat it across the country. Last year Bush signed an executive order giving religiously affiliated social service providers access to federal funds even if they discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring -- amending a prior executive order that had stood for more than 60 years barring such practices by federal contractors.
In the Senate, the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act is under consideration -- a bill that will likely be used to add legislative muscle to the president's executive order. If amended as expected, the bill would give added legal cover to discriminatory faith-based service programs by not explicitly prohibiting their receipt of public money.
Washington's interest in pushing this radical agenda has put a case challenging the Children's Home practices onto center stage. What the courts do in this case may decide the future viability of church-state separation.
The Children's Home provides residential foster care to 70 children who are in the custody of the state of Georgia. The facility receives about 40 percent of its budget, about $1.3-million, from the state.
In the fall of 2001 the Children's Home advertised for a psychological therapist and Alan Yorker applied. He had over 20 years of experience as a family therapist, had taught for more than a decade and was on a number of state professional committees. Part of the job application asked him to list his religion, which he did: Jewish. When, during his job interview the administrator checked Yorker's response to this question, the interview was immediately terminated. Yorker was told the Children's Home does not hire Jews.
According to an admission by Sherri Rawsthorn, a supervisor there, until they realized Yorker's religion he had been "one of the top candidates for the position." Apparently, embarrassing situations like this rarely came up because, according to the lawsuit Yorker filed, resumes from people with Jewish-sounding names were normally thrown in the trash. (Ironically, Yorker's name doesn't sound Jewish because his grandfather had his name changed after he lost his job as a conductor on the New York Central Railroad when the company downsized and sent the Jewish and black employees packing first.)
Yorker filed suit in July 2002 in state court alleging job discrimination. He was joined by another former employee of the Children's Home who was fired for being a lesbian, and a group of Georgia taxpayers who say their money shouldn't be going to support religious discrimination or the religious indoctrination of children in the foster care system. No trial date has been scheduled but the discovery portion of the trial -- when each side may request information from the other -- is set to end in September.
Yorker's case will help determine the success of Bush's scheme to redirect hundreds of million of dollars in federal money into overtly religious social welfare programs that close their doors to employees who don't choose to worship as they do. Religious discrimination shouldn't be a welcome national policy that gets funded from the public trough. And if Congress won't say so, the courts must.