Head Start Victory

U.S. House Was Right To Reject Discrimination

U.S. House Was Right To Reject Discrimination

The May 2 vote in the House of Representatives against religious discrimination in Head Start programs is encouraging. It may signal that Congress is no longer willing to sign off on claims that faith-based groups have the right to accept tax funding yet still impose religious qualifications on staff and volunteers.

Head Start is a publicly funded federal program that serves low-income children and their families. Religious groups sometimes serve as local sponsors of the program, but Head Start is by law non-sectarian. Head Start offers children various health, development and early education services. At the same time, it assists families with job skills, employment searches and family counseling.

None of this is religious in nature. Yet according to the Bush administration, re­li­gi­ous groups that participate in Head Start must be allowed to discriminate to ensure they operate on an “equal level” with others.

The use of the term is a feat of Double­speak that could have come straight from the pages of George Or­well. What the ad­ministration sought was not equality for religious groups but special treatment. By law, every Head Start provider must abide by federal regulations barring several forms of discrimination. Bush wanted to lift this provision for faith-based providers.

In keeping with his “faith-based” initiative, Bush wants special breaks for religious groups, not equality. Under the administration’s scheme, faith-based groups would have abided by looser rules governing hiring while a much stricter set applied to all others.

What’s worse is that the administration never explained why faith-based groups need this special treatment. It’s worth repeating: Head Start contains no religious content. Religious groups that participate in Head Start have no reason to restrict hiring to their own adherents; they are providing a public service, not striving to achieve sectarian goals.

Imagine a Jewish parent volunteer being removed from Head Start just because it operates in the basement of a Christian church. Imagine a teacher who belongs to a mainline Christian denomination being fired because her church isn’t fundamentalist. Imagine all of this being un­derwritten with tax funds. That is the Bush administration’s definition of “equality.”

Such blatant discrimination is an affront to our national values. That’s one reason why the National Head Start As­sociation, major religious groups and civil rights organizations opposed this ill-considered proposal. The House was wise to reject it, and the Senate should follow suit.