When discrimination is ok

Posted: Dec 27, 2002 12:00 AM
Alan Yorker is being discriminated against, and President Bush thinks it's a good thing. Last October, the United Methodist Children's Home in Decatur, Ga., refused to interview Yorker for a counseling position upon realizing that the otherwise eminently qualified psychotherapist is Jewish (another applicant was allegedly told that resumes with Jewish names were automatically tossed out). Why would our famously compassionate president not only not condemn such rank acts of discrimination, but actively fight to make them easier? On Dec. 12, Bush issued an executive order clarifying that religious charities that receive federal funds are permitted to discriminate on the basis of creed. This extends to recipients of federal grants a carve-out for the hiring practices of religious groups that already existed in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and had been affirmed in the 1987 Supreme Court case The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Amos (in that case, a longtime employee at a Mormon-run gym had been fired for not getting certified as a Mormon). When Bush tried to extend this exception legislatively as part of his new faith-based initiative, he encountered bitter resistance in Congress. The provision barely escaped the House and died in the Senate, making it necessary for Bush to resort to the executive order. Gay groups in particular have waged war on the hiring exception. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is suing the United Methodist Children's Home both on behalf of Alan Yorker and a former counselor named Aimee Bellmore. Bellmore worked at the home until November 2001, when she was fired for being a lesbian. The home has a policy of employing only Christian heterosexuals who are married or celibate. Since the Methodist home receives about 40 percent of its funding from the state of Georgia, the Lambda suit maintains "that Georgia is violating the federal and Georgia Constitutions by financing a religious institution that discriminates on the basis of religion." Is the home's hiring policy discriminatory? Yes. But any religious faith is inherently discriminatory, since it requires including people who hold a certain set of beliefs and excluding those who don't. Is the policy rational by a strict secular standard? No. But it helps make the United Methodist Children's Home uniquely Methodist. Other religious groups are welcome to hire on the basis of their own beliefs, including that the Methodists in Decatur have gotten this whole Christianity thing all wrong. Such competing visions, freely and vigorously pursued, would be a pretty good definition of pluralism. But the otherwise-sacred quest for "diversity" abruptly ends when it runs up against something liberals find offensive. So, the Methodists have to prove their commitment to diversity by becoming just like everyone else, or at least just like everyone else who thinks hiring on the basis of religion or sexual orientation is always wrong. Bush is seeking to remedy the tendency of government to interact with religious groups by denuding them of their religious character. He cited examples of this dynamic when he announced his executive order: "In Iowa, for example, the Victory Center Rescue Mission was told to return grant money to the government because the mission's board of directors was not secular enough. The St. Francis House Homeless Shelter in South Dakota was denied a grant because voluntary prayers were offered before meals. A few years ago in New York, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was discouraged from even applying for federal funds because it had the word 'Jewish' in its name." The idea of Bush's faith-based push is to open the essentially secular social-service functions of religious charities to government funding, without undermining the faith that animates them or funding their proselytizing. It's an admirable goal, but a delicate one, especially when government funding is subject to political pressure by groups with stilted notions of "tolerance." One wonders: In contemporary America, is it too much to ask that we be tolerant of Methodists?