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In his recent FT article, John DiIulio warns that after the first hundred days or so, Obama and his faith-based council “will not be able to vote “present” on faith-based initiatives.” Nor, can he expect critics “to stay quiet or be satisfied with broad or bipartisan consultations that nonetheless are followed by one-sided policies.” Sage advice, indeed.

But then DiIulio offers up a remarkably bad piece of advice. He suggests that Obama and his council use certain Roman Catholic institutions as a test case for whether his faith-based initiative is going off track:

Unlike some other religious communities, federations, or organizations, Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, and inner-city Catholic schools all typically serve people without any regard whatsoever to their respective beneficiaries’ religions, and generally restrict Catholic-only hiring, with or without any public funding, to top employees or key positions. Thus, whether the proposed changes are legislative, administrative, or involve modifying or repealing relevant Bush-era executive orders, if the West Wing phones start ringing off the hook with complaints from Catholic providers, Obama should pay special attention.

One might think that were the Obama administration to pay “special attention” to Catholic service providers rather than to Pentecostal, evangelical, Jewish, or Orthodox social service providers that would itself be a rather objectionable privileging of one particular “faith-community” over others. But let’s leave that aside.

Let’s also leave aside DiIulio’s comment that these Catholic institutions “all typically serve people without any regard whatsoever to their respective beneficiaries’ religions,” a point that is true enough but entirely irrelevant to disputes over Obama’s “faith-based” initiative. In fact, as DiIulio undoubtedly knows, it was the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative that required, for the first time, all recipients of federal funds to serve all without regard to religion. Prior to that there had been no such general rule.

What is worth thinking about a bit harder is DiIulio’s comment that these Catholic institutions “generally restrict Catholic-only hiring, with or without any public funding, to top employees or key positions.” DiIulio seems to be suggesting that these Roman Catholic institutions are particularly good candidates for public funding and should be particularly well-placed to be heard by the administration because when they “discriminate” against non-Catholics in their hiring policies they only “discriminate” selectively. They restrict their “discrimination” to “top employees or key positions.” The not-so-implicit suggestion seems to be that if a religious nonprofit were to “discriminate” less selectively then their participation in the Obama administration’s faith-based program should be subject to greater scrutiny. And unlike these more enlightened Catholic providers, their advice to the administration on such matters would be more suspect.

If this is, indeed, what DiIulio is suggesting, it is an astoundingly confused piece of advice. For one thing, just who gets to decide which positions are “top” or “key?” (Does DiIulio want to tell a Pentecostal service provider that their Pentecostal, African-American woman janitor is not a “key” employee?) For another, it has the potential to create inter-religious conflict among service providers. Third, given that the top positions in an organization are the ones that set policy, it is quite odd that DiIulio (in line with many liberals) find this less objectionable and less invidious that discriminatory hiring at the bottom of the heap.

Finally, and most importantly, DiIulio seems to be suggesting that those religious charities more concerned with preserving institutional identity or withstanding the pressures of secularization through their employment decisions,  all the way down as it were, are less worthy of public support than those with a more casual attitude with regard to their institutional identity or with less concern over potential institutional secularization.

Now, if Catholic Charities and other Catholic faith-based nonprofits, would like to hire, say, liberal pro-choice Methodists in “key” or “top” positions, or for that matter in “not-key” or “not-top” positions, that is entirely their business and, in my view, it should have no bearing on whether they may permissibly receive public funds. Catholic Charities and the rest would be perfectly within their rights to insist that they are the ones properly to decide what are the top positions, and also whether or not they want to hire without regard to religion in other posts. They would certainly regard it an infringement on their religious freedom and management prerogatives if the law said they must hire by religion from top to bottom!

But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It simply should not matter if Pentecostal, evangelical or Jewish social service providers think that hiring a liberal pro-choice Methodist would be a bad idea for their organization’s identity or would compromise their stand against the pressures of secularization. They would certainly regard it an infringement on their religious freedom and management prerogatives if the law said they were forbidden to hire by religion from top to bottom!  (Here, I would just add that not all Catholic service organizations follow Catholic Charities’ hiring policy; some insist on Catholics from top to bottom. They believe it is their own job to decide how to fit religion and staffing together.)

I suspect that DiIulio thinks he is trying to steer a middle course between a principled position that would automatically disqualify participation in public funding for all institutions that discriminate in hiring even if it were restricted to “top” or “key” positions. This “strict separationist” perspective will have nothing to do with funding Catholic Charities or other more “progressive” service providers because they still discriminate in “top” or “key” positions. I disagree with position, although I can respect it as principled.

The other principled position that DiIulio seems intent on avoiding, however, insists that government should treat no better or no worse those service providers that are more concerned with preserving their religious identity and in resisting secularization through their hiring decisions—top to bottom—than those less concerned (e.g., Catholic Charities) with such matters. What I can’t understand is an ostensible “middle way” that says it is perfectly acceptable to “discriminate” in hiring in some positions (“top” and “key”) but not in others.

Merely having a personal preference for the hiring practices of certain Catholic service providers is not exactly a principled position. In fact, it appears to be just so much special pleading in favor of the service providers that DiIulio just happens to like. Why he would not simply endorse a principle of equal treatment among diverse service providers who jealously guard their right to make hiring decisions that they see fit, from top to bottom, remains a mystery.



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