Obama Asked About Faith-Based Religious Discrimination

Earlier this morning, President Obama did a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland and when it came time for the Q&A session, guess who was first up?

Amanda Knief, the Government Relations Manager for the Secular Coalition for America! How perfect is that?!

She asked an important question, too.

The segment starts at the 19:55 mark of the video here. (***Edit***: Here’s just the clip of Amanda’s segment.)

Here’s the transcript:

Knief: I’m an atheist, and in Zanesville, Ohio in 2008, you asserted that no organization receiving taxpayer funds would be able to discriminate in hiring or firing based on a person’s religion. However, you have not rescinded the Executive Order that permits this type of discrimination.

In a time of economic hardship, when it’s difficult for a person to get a job based on her skills, what would you say to a woman who has been denied employment because of her religion or lack of religious beliefs by a taxpayer-funded organization?

Obama: Well, this is a very difficult issue, but a more narrow one that I think might be implied. It’s very straightforward that people shouldn’t be discriminated against for race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.

What has happened is that there has been a carve-out dating back to President Clinton’s presidency for religious organizations in their hiring for particular purposes. And if — this is always a tricky part of the First Amendment. On the one hand, the First Amendment ensures that there is freedom of religion. On the other hand, we want to make sure that religious bodies are abiding by general laws. And so where this issue has come up is in fairly narrow circumstances where, for example, you’ve got a faith-based organization that’s providing certain services. They consider part of their mission to be promoting their religious views.

But they may have a daycare center associated with the organization, or they may be running a food pantry. So then the question is: Does a Jewish organization have to hire a non-Jewish person as part of that organization?

Now, I think that the balance we’ve tried to strike is to say that if you are offering — if you have set up a non-profit that is disassociated from your core religious function and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, then you have to abide generally with the non-discrimination hiring practices. If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a mosque or a church, then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.

It doesn’t satisfy everybody. I will tell you that a lot of faith-based organizations think that we are too restrictive in how we define those issues. There are others, like you, obviously, who think we are not restrictive enough.

I think we’ve struck the right balance so far, but this is something that we continue to be in dialogue with faith-based organizations about to try to make sure that their hiring practices are as open and as inclusive as possible.

It’s amazing how Obama can say so much without saying anything at all…

It doesn’t look like he’s doing anything to fix this problem. He’s not going to rescind the Executive Order. He’s going to continue allowing federal funding to go to groups that are more concerned with promoting their faith that providing a service for the common good.

I think Amanda’s reaction to his response speaks for a lot of us:

It’s the look that says: “Really, Obama…? That’s the best you got? Damn, you’ve really disappointed us.”

***Update***: According to an SCA press release, Knief wasn’t satisfied with the response:

“Unfortunately, the president didn’t address the most egregious aspect of this policy — that religious discrimination is occurring on the taxpayer’s dime,” Knief said. “Discrimination is wrong in all forms, especially when it is being funded by taxpayers. I would urge the president to reconsider the statements he made today, and stick to his campaign promise of 2008 by signing an executive order barring any taxpayer funding of religious organizations that discriminate on the basis of belief.”

***Update 2***: Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches explains the problems with Obama’s response:

… The question here is whether any organization that receives taxpayer dollars can discriminate in hiring based on religion. And that was the question Obama didn’t answer.

So when Obama says the Jewish food pantry, for example, has “to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices,” he’s dodging the real question: why he won’t rescind the Bush rule, and prohibit any organization that receives federal funding from discriminating based on religion in hiring. An organization like World Vision, for example, is not a church but a 501(c)(3); it receives federal funding. Its president, Richard Strearns (who also served on the first Advisory Council to Obama’s faith-based office) has long argued that his and other organizations should be able to discriminate against employees, and it has fired employees who denied the “deity of Jesus Christ” and “the doctrine of the Trinity.” Last year, World Vision received over $100 million in federal dollars.


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Rich Wilson
  • Rich Wilson

    “we continue to be in dialogue with faith-based organizations”

    Privilege at work.  Doesn’t even consider the need to talk to anyone else.  Like the SCA.

  • Rich Wilson

    “we continue to be in dialogue with faith-based organizations”

    Privilege at work.  Doesn’t even consider the need to talk to anyone else.  Like the SCA.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=746759036 Wrich Printz

    You can barely convince the 90% of people who claim to believe in “faith” not to kill and torture each other. Asking them to hire someone who works beside them spouting different nonsense is a bit of a stretch. Obama is not going to anger a huge voting block that already thinks he is not the same as they are, by making them do so.

    When we show up and have disappointed looks, we are going to get jack squat. Contrary to your assertion that Obama said nothing, he said exactly what the questioner KNEW he was going to say.

    It breaks down to “I am less of a nut job than the rest of them. I am doing what I can with what I got, and I am not pissing off people who vote in larger numbers”.

    The way to break though this is to keep organizing, and keep showing up to help people in need. When you show up and say “I will help you even when I don’t believe that the Sky Father will punish me if I don’t”, you will start to move people over time.

    • Anonymous

      Disclaimer: I ask this because I’m not American and may not be familiar with the nuances of US politics. That said, assuming Obama is elected for a second term, do you think he might be more receptive to ideas he might agree with yet be unwilling to fight for in his first term due to how they’d hurt his reelection chances?

      • Chad Casarotto

        Yes, at least at the end of a second term. There are many examples of lame duck or retiring politicians who break from the party line because they no longer are worried about being reelected.

    • Anonymous

      Disclaimer: I ask this because I’m not American and may not be familiar with the nuances of US politics. That said, assuming Obama is elected for a second term, do you think he might be more receptive to ideas he might agree with yet be unwilling to fight for in his first term due to how they’d hurt his reelection chances?

  • Anonymous

    Her look says it all. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Hikari.Pop Crystal Jenae Hollis

    Unfortunately he doesn’t want to lose the religious votes.  He’s trying to stay in the gray area and pussy foot around.

  • Free Cowboy Hats

    As long as being a politician is a job, politicians (like anybody else in any other line of work) will always prioritize keeping their jobs over anything else. This is why I’m never surprised by anything they say or do and why I don’t vote for any of them.

  • ubernerd83

    Actually he said quite a bit, although I would have characterized as the First Amendment’s internal tension between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause.

  • Anonymous

    I was watching the town hall and the question seemed out of place and random. I was annoyed by it and I am actually concerned about the issue she brought up. I am guessing with the prospect that our economy and financial standing could go down the toilet in the next couple of weeks this type of issue isn’t really on the president’s mind. Yes, it was a safe political response and I wish he had a better answer, but I will give him a pass considering what is going on right now with the debt ceiling negotiations. I guess the issue is on his radar now, but I doubt it is going to be given any priority considering the huge issues our government is having to deal with right now.

    • http://profiles.google.com/cartman86 Brice Gilbert

      It’s not a hard question to answer. Should companies getting government money be able to discriminate based on religion? It doesn’t even take any research or long thought to get this right. Besides I don’t buy that no other issue should be brought up when the economy is so bad. I especially don’t care when it’s a town hall where he can’t answer exactly what he’s going to do to fix the economy. If anything this is the place to answer basic general questions that he should be able to answer simply and plainly.

      • Anonymous

        If that’s the question she wanted answered, that’s the question she should have asked. Instead she worded it in political rheotoric, just like the president did with his answer.  Was he supposed to answer, “I would tell her that that just isn’t right and to file an employment discrimination claim and hope that her case gets to the Supreme Court so they can take care of it. Next question.” She was speaking in political code just like he was.

        Either way, perhaps being asked the question will put the issue on his political radar so it can be dealt with. I think most of us agree with the questioner.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Of course much more can be done to say that if churches receive
    taxpayer money to provide social services, then they must separate their social
    service component from their proselytizing component.  Basically, if you offer a social service that
    could as easily be offered by a secular group, then all aspects of that
    component must abide by the federal laws. 
     I appreciate that Obama is more
    in the direction of the light-gray on this issue than his predecessor, but
    there is still room to go.  As long as
    the “gray zone” exists, then future administration may regress back to the
    dark-gray position (to pick an arbitrary color gradient direction).

  • Trace

    Good grief! He sure is a pol.

  • Stephanief

    I wanted to volunteer for a refugee service organization last year.  I was appalled to find that all volunteers and employees were required to sign a contract pledging to abide by and  “serve” by their evangelical agenda.  Even more maddening is that this agency is contracted federally to aid refugees coming into our country.  Federally funded, evangelical mandates, and refugees who apparently don’t deserve the religious freedoms of this country.  

    http://worldrelief.org/aurora

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1240511452 Michele Rossi

    First– to the person who doesn’t vote– then stay out of it– since you ARE out of it.  I can understand the disappointment of this questioner. But, realistically, as many have said– this is a “by the inch” issue. I think this had come a LONG way in a relatively short period of time– and is certainly an about-face from W’s mindset. Obama can’t just wave everything away– yes, he IS a politician, and yes, he DOES want to get re-elected… We want him to get the most he can out of his terms– and that might mean going more slowly than every single interest group wants. This is how it is done– and yes, keep organizing, keep pushing– and don’t throw the Obama out with the bath water! 

  • Anonymous

    The ‘Core functions’ rhetoric is very close to what the Ontario (Canada) Court of Appeal had to say about hiring policies in Catholic schools.

  • Newavocation

    Changes won’t occur until we all just stop voting for the two parties and either protest with No vote or vote for independent or 3rd party candidates! Stupid is as stupid does.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Not voting at all is an unwise way to protest, because nobody hears your protestation, and if they do nobody cares because you’ve made yourself powerless. Often those who do vote like the fact that you don’t vote, because it makes their vote count for more.
      Always vote, even if it is only for the lesser of two or three evils. Voting is like paddling on your side of a boat, helping to steer it in a better direction. Not voting at all means you’re nothing but ballast.

      • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Mcc1789

        Statistically and politically, one vote cast makes no difference. You also seem to forget the poster suggested voting for third parties too. Lesser evil is still evil. If there is no one I feel is worthy of my vote, or it will  make no difference, I choose not to vote at all. There is also the method of protest voting: a write-in candidate (perhaps yourself) or “none of the above” etc. 

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Obama did not specify who decides if a tax-funded social service provided by a religious organization is integral to the practice of their faith. That omission leaves it implied that the religious organization gets to decide.  There is no motivation at all for them to separate their services from their religion, because they would lose the option to discriminate if they wanted to.  They can take everybody’s tax money and still discriminate in hiring, and perhaps subtly expand that to discriminate in who gets their services.

    They can take my money and refuse to hire me, and maybe even refuse to help me.

    “No taxation without representation!”

  • Hitch

    Yep the problem is tax-payer funding. But it’s not surprising that Obama would dodge the core issue,  because the GOP would literally try their best to crucify him with anything that doesn’t sound like equivocation and sympathetic to the faith-based side.

    In reality all tax funding of faith-based organizations that do not have a clean separation of their funded activity from their faith-based activities is unconstitutional because establishment.

  • Jim Richey

    I agree, her look says it all .
       I think it is time for the Presidency to become a  6 year term office  ( no reelection).   It would stop the President from pandering to any and all and maybe do what he knows  needs to be done. It would also have shortened a Bush  Presidency.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    I had fun looking at all the people behind Obama judging that woman after hearing she was an atheist. Some didn’t want to look directly at her for fear of being seduced by the devil, others just had that “offended” look on their faces. Then there were all those people that were pissing themselves that Obama was going to ask for a show of hands of the atheists in the room. That would have been golden.

  • Dan W

    I voted for Obama, but this is one of the areas where I don’t like what he’s doing. He really should have away with federal support of faith-based organizations. Like the Office of Faith Based Initiatives or whatever it’s called now. See here- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith-based_initiatives  I’ve lost some respect for him because of that, especially when he gives canned responses to questions about this unconstitutional bullshit. I really would like to see Obama stop pandering to the religious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Carvin/100001033684440 Andrew Carvin

    A hypothetical person has an X that they believe tells
    him/her to do things, and a part of their belief in X is an afterlife where
    everything is so much better than this. To get there they have to do everything
    that X tells them to which includes incredibly violent acts of evil.

     

    Replace X with Barney The Purple Dinosaur.

     

    Now replace X with (insert deity’s name here).

     

    Do you really want people like this in our society driving
    our buses, taking care of our children, making decisions about national
    defense, roaming our streets armed with guns, etc.

     

    X is an invention of the human mind with no basis in
    fact/science/reality beyond what any particular person prefers to believe. What
    if a person’s preference changes to something evil?

     

    Do you see how this could be a problem?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Carvin/100001033684440 Andrew Carvin

    Preferential Reality is a viewpoint on reality that acknowledges/supports the existence of only what one prefers, and ignores/vilifies the existence of anything outside a person’s preferences. It is a delusional mindset that ignores reality as it truly is, it is highly resistant to facts/logic/reason, and inspires rampant stupidity/ignorance/laziness. Morals cannot be based on a Preferential Reality, and thus any Preferential Reality is intrinsically evil. Religion is presently the most overt form of Preferential Reality in society.

    Here’s an example,

    Lets say I wake up stupid one day, and embrace (insert religion here).

    I want to worship X as best I can, and I prefer to do so by killing anyone who doesn’t worship X.

    Suddenly murder becomes OK!

    So I go kill a bunch of people in the name of X.

    YAY! I MADE X HAPPY!

    Murder is not good for society, and no executions are not the same. There are many things that help keep a society intact, and one of those is at the least an expectation that involvement with a society gives some guarantee of continued life. If I’m not granted that then why am I a member? This is logically/scientifically/factually sound. We know this by looking at successful societies VS ones that aren’t so successful.

    In spite of this the Preferentially thinking person can ignore all that because they are only thinking about pleasing their imaginary friend in their preferential way.

    In this case X Religious person doesn’t like anyone who doesn’t worship his/her sky pie god, and thus his/her sky pie god does not like them either. So in a loop of delusion he/she just made it totally acceptable to victimize anyone who isn’t part of their sky pie god fantasy.

    Religious people = no moral responsibility whatsoever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    “It’s amazing how Obama can say so much without saying anything at all…”

    Did it ever dawn on you that “Hope” and “Change” are meaninless?  Hope for what? Change into what?

  • Mary

    The only way to keep the government from taking your money and doing things you don’t want them to do with it is to limit their functions to the most basic ones, which is what the Constitution and Bill of Rights attempted to do. We’ve come a long way, baby! If you want the government to make your life better, they will define “better” however they see fit and use your money to accomplish that end. Faith-based services are just one example of an endless list of services that the government provides to make your life better. Enjoy!!!

  • Anonymous

    Why are religious organisations getting tax payer’s money at all?  Don’t give them any cash and leave them to wallow in their own bigotry and hire who they like.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Mcc1789

    I agree that private organizations that use public funding should not be able to discriminate, as this would be taking people’s money then excluding them from hiring or receiving services. However, this could be simplified with not publicly funding any private organizations, religious and non. A taxpayer funding an organization they completely disagree with, and that may have interests directly contrary, is simply wrong in my view.  As an atheist, I object to funding religious organizations, whether or not they are charitable. On the other hand, I also think Planned Parenthood should receive public funding either, for the same reasons. I support their activities, but the people who do not should no more be forced to fund them than atheists funding these religious organizations. 


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