Saad Mohammad Ali had every reason to think he was going to be hired for an Arabic-speaking caseworker position in World Relief’s refugee resettlement program in Seattle, Wash.
The 42-year-old man is a former interpreter for the U.S. government in Iraq, he speaks English well and he is anxious to help other Iraqi refugees like himself learn to adjust to life here. He had already done that kind of work for six months as a World Relief volunteer.
To make his employment prospects even brighter, a World Relief manager had suggested that he apply for the position.
But Mohammad Ali’s hopes were dashed a few days later when the manager called to say the Muslim father of three was not eligible. World Relief could not hire him, she said, because he is not a Christian.
“I’ve heard over and over again that in the U.S. discrimination in any form is not accepted,” he told The Seattle Times. “So it was a disappointment.”
But Mohammad Ali’s understanding of American law is wrong. “Faith-based” social service agencies in the United States can, and do, discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, even if they get the majority of their funding from the government.
Under federal policies implemented by President George W. Bush in 2001 – and left in place today by President Barack Obama – publicly subsidized religious charities are free to hire only those who profess specific religious beliefs and live in accordance with religious doctrine.
World Relief, the agency that rejected Mohammad Ali, is the social service arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. According to media reports, it gets about two-thirds of its $50 million budget from federal and state governments. But despite that massive public aid, job applicants must be Christians, sign statements of faith and obtain letters of recommendation from their ministers.
The ministry’s hiring stance, which has only recently been formalized, first came to public light in March when The Seattle Times ran its article about Mohammad Ali’s plight. But organizational leaders said the Christians-only employment policy has been in place informally for a number of years.
Some World Relief workers are angry about what they see as a draconian and un-Christian change.
According to the Chicago Tribune, there was an exodus of staff members in the Chicago office because they objected to the overt religious discrimination and other alterations in World Relief’s character that it might portend.
Candace Embling, director of the Chicago office for five years, left. And so did Trisha Teofilo, a legal specialist. Others are apparently planning to leave as well.
“As a Christian, I feel it is my duty to advocate for the most vulnerable,” Teofilo told the Tribune. “I believe Jesus would not promote a policy of discrimination.”
Teofilo also worries about the effect on the refugees the agency deals with.
“I really feel for the refugee clients who have no choice,” she told the newspaper. “If they are victims of religious persecution and they’re being resettled through an agency staffed by all Christians who may or may not understand their plight, I think that is unjust.”
World Relief’s top brass claims the job bias is legal under federal law because religious groups are exempt from federal civil rights laws that ban religious discrimination. Supporters of the policy also point to executive orders and a Department of Justice memo issued during Bush’s presidential tenure that specifically allow such bias.
“It’s legal, but it’s ridiculously wrong and un-Christian,” Delia Seeburg told the Tribune. Seeburg, director of immigrant legal services in World Relief’s Chicago office, is looking for work elsewhere.
Mohammed Zeitoun, a Muslim who works for World Relief as an employment counselor, took the same stance.
“To ask us to change who we are, it’s not right, not in the country of the United States of America – the land of the free,” Zeitoun told the Tribune. Zeitoun, too, is looking for a job elsewhere.
The new employment policy is also hurting World Relief on other fronts. A mental health program has closed because the hiring bias may violate professional standards for social workers and clinical psychologists, foundations are rethinking grants and state officials are considering opening an investigation.
World Relief leaders blithely dismiss these concerns.
“I don’t believe it’s discrimination. It’s an internal hiring policy,” the Rev. Brad Morris, interim director of the Chicago office, told the Tribune. “Corporations want to hire people who are in line with who they are and what they stand for.”
But critics say publicly funded agencies, even if they have a religious affiliation, should not discriminate on religious grounds in employment. Proselytism is forbidden in publicly funded programs, so there is no need, they say, for staff to be chosen on any grounds other than qualification.
Ron Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, told The Tennessean in March that all Americans pay taxes that support public services and all should be eligible for jobs in the programs that ensue.
“Our position is that if a charity receives government funds, they should play by the same rules as everyone else,” Winkler said.
Winkler and other leaders of progressive religious, advocacy, civil rights and civil liberties groups are pressing Obama to keep his promise to overturn the Bush-era rules that allow employment discrimination and inadequately prevent proselytism in federally subsidized social services.
The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) includes some 60 organizations ranging from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Education Association and the American Association of University Women to the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
CARD is chaired by Aaron Schuham, director of legislative affairs for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“We respect the right of religious groups to hire whom they choose for privately funded religious endeavors,” said Schuham. “But government-subsidized social services should hire on the basis of applicant qualification, not religion.”
World Relief’s approach to its evangelical Christian character and its hiring policy has undergone an interesting evolution.
In 1998, Clive Calver, then president of the ministry, told World Magazine that his organization had strayed from its evangelical moorings and that he was determined to cut down the amount of government funding and ratchet up its church ties. He said federal funding of 33 percent – that World Relief was getting then – was too high.
“Our percentage of government money will get to 20 percent,” he told the evangelical news magazine. “I don’t want to be in a position to be tarnished. I don’t want to be in a position of dependency.”
But the lure of government largesse apparently proved too great. Faith-based groups such as World Relief found friendly faces handing out U.S. Agency for International Development money in the concluding years of the Bill Clinton administration, and an avalanche of federal money rained down during the Bush years.
“World Relief was highly embraced by the Bush administration,” the ministry’s Senior Vice President Don Golden told World in 2009. In 2008, the magazine reported, $31 million of World Relief’s $60 million budget came from the federal government.
In an apparent bid to keep the cash flowing after Bush left the White House, the Baltimore, Md.-based nonprofit announced in 2009 that it had hired Andrew Mwavua, an Obama campaign staffer, as a national director. That controversial choice, however, was apparently too much for World Relief’s Republican-leaning constituency, and Mwavua quickly resigned.
The newly revealed World Relief commitment to hiring only staff members who share its conservative evangelical outlook may be an outgrowth of the Mwavua incident.
Ironically, the Obama administration may be willing to continue taxpayer subsidies to World Relief and other “faith-based” charities even if they do discriminate and do not have direct links to the White House.
“I think the new administration originally had skepticism about what faith-based groups were doing,” Stanley Carlson-Thies, a staffer in the Bush faith-based office, told World, “but now that they’ve taken a close look, they’ve re-evaluated that skepticism. Not only is it not as bad as they thought, some of it is working pretty well.”
Advocates of civil rights and civil liberties are determined to persuade Obama to keep his commitment to fix what they see as a Bush faith-based fiasco.
“I do not believe that Obama wants to go down in history as a president who left in place job bias rules that rolled back civil rights protections,” said AU’s Schuham. “Americans United and our CARD allies plan to do everything possible to bring about the change that is overdue.”