Government-Funded Religious Discrimination
in Head Start Programs
The United States Senate will soon debate legislation reauthorizing the historic anti-poverty Head Start preschool education program. At that time, the Senate will have a chance to reverse action taken by the House of Representatives on September 22 to permit, for the first time, Head Start programs run by religious organizations to engage in religious discrimination in hiring and firing of teachers and staff. Head Start serves close to one million disadvantaged preschool children in America.
Under current law, first enacted in 1972, agencies that receive government funding for Head Start including religious organizations and churches are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion when hiring or firing staff. These existing non-discrimination requirements have a history of bipartisan support, and were originally signed into law by President Richard Nixon. For 33 years, these fundamental non-discrimination protections have worked well, allowing thousands of Head Start programs in communities throughout the country to flourish including many based in religious organizations, churches, and synagogues while maintaining cherished constitutional and civil rights safeguards against religious tests for employment.
ADL has consistently raised concerns about the need for essential safeguards when taxpayer funds are used for programs run by religious organizations in order to protect both the organizations and those who use their services. The League strongly supports the right of churches and synagogues to perform their religious mission with their own private funds. But federally-funded religious discrimination is always wrong. It is especially damaging in the context of the enormously influential Head Start program.
Head Start has been a ladder out of poverty for so many disadvantaged children and their parents, many of whom have become teachers after having first served as volunteer teacher aides in their child’s classroom. If Congress approves such an amendment, teachers and staff working at Head Start programs housed in religious organizations could immediately be fired because of their religion.
On May 18 2005, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the Head Start reauthorization legislation (H.R. 2123, the School Readiness Act) by a bipartisan, unanimous vote of 48-0 retaining the existing civil rights and anti-discrimination provisions. Yet, the Committee Chairman, Representative John Boehner, with the support of the Bush administration, offered an amendment when the bill came to the House floor to repeal these longstanding anti-discrimination provisions. Unfortunately, the Boehner religious discrimination amendment was approved by a vote of 220-196 on September 22.
The House had never voted to repeal existing civil rights protections in a floor amendment, without the benefit of committee hearings and testimony from experts and on a historic anti-poverty program universally acclaimed and present in so many communities across the country. Now the Senate must act to reverse this misguided action by the House.
A repeal of the existing protections against discrimination in Head Start is bad for religion. The push for the right to discriminate on the basis of religion is not coming from the religious community. In fact, these programs raise serious concerns about the possibility of government entanglement with religious practices and are likely to result in unwelcome, divisive competition among religious groups before elected officials for scarce government funds.