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Reform Jewish Leader Condemns Government-Funded Discrimination in Head Start
In a briefing yesterday for Congressional staff in advance of an expected vote later this week on an amendment to the School Readiness Act that would permit government-funded discrimination in hiring Head Start professionals, Rabbi Michael Namath, Program Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement noting, "We cannot allow Head Start, paid for by tax dollars collected from Americans of all faiths and no faiths, to discriminate against Americans of any faith."

Namath: We cannot allow Head Start, paid for by tax dollars collected from Americans of all faiths and no faiths, to discriminate against Americans of any faith.

Contact: Alexis Rice or Barbara Weinstein 202.387.2800

Washington, September 20, 2005 - In a briefing yesterday for Congressional staff in advance of an expected vote later this week on an amendment to the School Readiness Act that would permit government-funded discrimination in hiring Head Start professionals, Rabbi Michael Namath, Program Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

My name is Rabbi Michael Namath and I am the Program Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.  I am pleased to join you here today to talk about the importance of opposing religious discrimination in our federally-funded Head Start programs.  As a clergy member, I know well the important role faith plays in my life and the lives of millions of Americans.  I also know the important role our government plays in ensuring religious liberty.  We cannot allow Head Start, paid for by tax dollars collected from Americans of all faiths and no faiths, to discriminate against Americans of any faith.

For several years, legislative proposals to reauthorize Head Start contained provisions that would repeal civil rights protections in existence since 1972, prohibiting faith-based Head Start centers from discriminating in whom they hire on the basis of religion.  The bi-partisan School Readiness Act wisely refrained from including those provisions.  That is why it is all the more troubling knowing that when the House considers the bill this week, Congressman Boehner intends to offer his amendment to overturn decades of civil rights protections and permit religious discrimination.  Experience teaches us that a broad exemption for religious organizations would permit religious groups to use government money to discriminate based on race, sexual orientation, and marital status.

And for what purpose?

As a parent of two young children, I know the importance of early childhood education.  I understand that what matters to kids as they learn secular subjects is not the faith of their teacher, but the skills of their teacher. Head Start programs hire the most qualified teachers for our nation’s children, not the teachers whose religious beliefs or practices best match those of an employer. We support preserving the autonomy of religious organizations with respect to hiring decisions made in privately funded programs.  If we want our kids to be well grounded in the teachings of their faith, then we should expect their religious school teachers to be well-grounded in theology.  But if we want our kids to read, write, and count to 10, we should make sure their Head Start teachers are well-grounded in education. Why would we ever permit the government to short-change our kids by permitting teachers to be hired on fired not based on their skills, but on their religious background?

The Rabbinic tradition tells us: “Teachers and schoolchildren are society’s most beautiful ornaments.” (Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah 1:10:2).  Nearly one million kids each year benefit from Head Start programs.  More than 1.5 million teachers and parent volunteers work in Head Start centers.  We should not deny any of these ornaments their chance to shine.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis.



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