Government officials in Georgia have agreed to stop funding sectarian organizations that discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff, in a bid to settle a lawsuit involving public aid to a Methodist foster care agency.
Under the terms of the settlement, "faith-based" organizations in Georgia must agree to abide by anti-discrimination policies when hiring staff to provide services to the public or give up tax aid.
The case was brought by Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights group, in August of 2002. Lambda Legal sued on behalf of Aimee Bellmore and Alan Yorker, who were denied positions at the United Methodist Children's Home in Decatur because of Bellmore's sexual orientation and Yorker's religion.
Bellmore had been working at the home as a counselor. She had received outstanding performance evaluations and was in line for a promotion. Nevertheless, she was fired in November of 2001 after officials at the home learned that she is a lesbian.
Yorker, a psychotherapist who is Jewish, applied for a job at the home and received an interview. However, the interview was terminated when a staff member learned that Yorker is not a Christian.
The case has been closely watched because President George W. Bush and congressional advocates of the "faith-based" initiative have argued that religious groups should be able to accept tax funding and still retain discriminatory hiring policies. Opponents of the initiative say that is not fair.
"No one should be able to open a newspaper to the Help Wanted column and see an ad that says, 'Government-funded child welfare positions; Jews and Catholics need not apply,'" Susan Sommer, a Lambda Legal attorney, told National Public Radio.
Michael Adams, director of education and public affairs at Lambda Legal, said the settlement in the Bellmore v. United Methodist Children's Home and Department of Human Resources of Georgia case is an important step in ensuring that taxpayer funds do not subsidize any form of discrimination.
"In this new era of public funding for social services provided by faith-based organizations, we have made significant progress in this case by building in critical civil rights protections," Adams said. "A religious organization motivated by faith and funded with public money to provide important social services can do so, people who need services are protected from having to conform to a religion to get help, taxpayers don't have to wonder what kind of religious activity their money is funding and employees' publicly funded jobs don't depend on their personal religious beliefs."
Officials at the Methodist home had required children sent there to attend Christian services weekly, no matter what the youngsters' religious beliefs might be. Under the terms of the settlement, the home will have to drop sectarian activities or forgo government funding.