Significant public attention has been focused on the proposed Islamic Center in New York and its implications for the freedom of religion. However, another First Amendment conflict has been brewing all this time which may also shape the role of government in regulating religious organizations.
The issue has centered around pending legislation that would prohibit religious groups that receive Federal funding from religion-based discrimination in their hiring decisions. The bill in question is HR 5466, introduced by Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), which would reauthorize Federal substance abuse treatment funding administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Recently, leaders of more than 100 organizations — including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — sent a letter to all members of Congress to protest the language in the bill that would ban them from preferring staff who share their religious faith. Among other laws, the signatories invoked the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the grounds for their complaint.
"Stripping away the religious hiring rights of religious service providers violates the principle of religious freedom, and represents bad practice in the delivery of social services," said Anthony R. Picarello Jr., General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.