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Head Start program embroiled in religious-rights debate
Scripps Howard News Service


October 03, 2005

WASHINGTON - Another scuffle in the debate over religious rights and public money is under way, and the venue this time is the schoolrooms of some of the nation's low-income youngsters.

At issue is a last-minute provision tacked on last week to the House reauthorization of the federal Head Start educational program for disadvantaged kids who need a boost before starting elementary school.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, crafted an amendment that would allow faith-based groups that take Head Start money to consider the religious beliefs of potential employees when deciding who to hire.

That means some otherwise qualified applicants could be turned down because they are not followers of the church or other entity offering Head Start classes. For example, a Jewish synagogue could refuse to hire a Christian teacher - even if that teacher is more qualified than Jewish applicants for the job - simply because of his or her faith.

Boehner and some Christian groups say such selectivity is a matter of religious freedom. But others contend that it amounts to religious discrimination, which disqualifies any group from receiving taxpayers' money.

These conflicting views about the 33-year-old program - which was begun in 1972 to give an educational boost to poor children, many of them minorities - are battling it out in the Senate.

For now, faith-based groups administer just 5 percent of the 2,700 Head Start programs around the country, according to the National Head Start Association. That number would likely climb if religious organizations could receive federal funds and still hire anyone they wish, experts said.

Supporters of Boehner's amendment - which the House approved Sept. 22 on a mostly party-line vote of 220-196 - say churches and faith-based schools must have staff members who subscribe to their own practices and beliefs. Otherwise, they risk diluting or losing their identity, they say.

"It's hard to imagine seriously that faith-based organizations could possibly continue to exist if they couldn't openly take account of faith when they hire," said Stanley Carson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice.

That view was echoed by Heritage Foundation researchers Grace Smith and Jonathan Butcher in a recent analysis of the issue. "The leadership and personnel of any organization determine its priorities, carry out its mission, and embody its values," they wrote.

But an array of groups, including the National Council of La Raza and the National Council of Jewish Women, say that it is a bedrock principle of civil rights that the federal government will not be a party to discrimination on the basis of religion, race, age or gender. Those who receive federal money must adhere to that tenet. If they don't, they are ineligible for the funds.

"The (House) action threatens the very principle of equality upon which Head Start was founded," said Phyllis Snyder, president of the Jewish women's council.

The national Head Start outfit has also panned the faith-based provision.

"We don't think Head Start children should be taught, just because Congress is in favor of it, that discrimination is a good thing," said Sarah Greene, president of the organization.


Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)

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