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Statement by Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center Of Reform Judaism, in Opposition to the Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act

May 7, 2003
Press Conference
Cannon House Office Building Terrace

Contact:Alexis Rice or Randi Levine
(202) 387-2800


I am proud to stand today with these distinguished Members of Congress and religious leaders in strong opposition to legislation that threatens to turn back the clock on civil rights. The Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act (H.R. 1261) would authorize government-funded discrimination, allowing "faith-based" job training programs to use government money to fund jobs that require employees to adhere to specific religious tenets. It would violate a fundamental notion of our civil rights laws-that government money should never be used to discriminate.

It would be appropriate, and, in my opinion, Constitutional, to grant a narrow exemption to religious organizations that receive money from the government enabling them to fulfill their religious mission by hiring some supervisory staff based on religion. However, the blanket authorization for religious discrimination in hiring that this bill allows is unconscionable. We live in a nation where we expect to be hired or fired, promoted or demoted in a government-funded job based on our qualifications, not based on our most personal religious beliefs or on our religious identity.

As highlighted in a current court case, Georgia's United Methodist Children's Home, which receives nearly half of its funding from the government, refused to hire Alan Yorker, an experienced social worker, because he is Jewish. In fact, an interviewer admitted that the Home filters out applications that have Jewish-sounding names. Experience teaches us that a broad exemption for religious organizations (that would allow them to consider religious identity or religious values as hiring criteria) would breed widespread discrimination permitting religious groups to use government money to discriminate based on sexual orientation, race, and marital status. Such discrimination led the government-funded Kentucky Baptist Home for Children to fire Alicia Pedreira because she is a lesbian and does not share her employer's religious beliefs about homosexuality. It is unacceptable that our taxpayer dollars will fund jobs for which we need not bother applying because our last name is Cohen, because we believe that regardless of sexual orientation all humans are created in God's image, because, despite all our training and qualifications, we do not worship God in the same way as an employer. A defining concept of America is its guarantee that our status as citizens will never depend on our religious beliefs and practices.

The exemption proposed in the Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act is unnecessary. Faith-based job training programs do not need to hire line workers on the basis of religion to have an effective program, and government-funded religiously affiliated organizations have long hired staff to provide social services without regard to religious affiliation. Religious beliefs do not change the way that a staff member teaches résumé writing or helps file claims for unemployment insurance. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists use the same criteria to determine eligibility for Welfare-to-Work programs. One month ago, the Senate acknowledged that government-funded discrimination is unneeded and unwise when it removed charitable choice provisions from the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment Act.

Sometimes, there is a proposal that places our commitment to preserving civil rights and religious liberty at odds with our commitment to pursuing economic justice and helping those in need. The Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act (H.R. 1261), however, is not such a bill. Equally alarming as the civil rights concerns is the fact that this bill ignores the distinct needs of low-income workers, dislocated workers, youth, and adults by consolidating funding streams into a single block grant to states. It would pit the needs of low-income workers against the needs of those who are unemployed. This bill would not help achieve the highest level of tzedakah, helping people become self-sufficient.

The notion that a government-funded job training program run by a Protestant church could place a job notice in the newspaper reading "Jews, Catholics, Muslims need not apply," or "No unmarried mothers will be hired" is deeply and profoundly troubling to many in the religious community, on Capitol Hill, and, according to an April 2001 Pew Forum poll on this issue, to seventy-eight percent of the American public. This bill poses a real threat to religion, government, and the value of equal opportunity. Let Congress demonstrate both its commitment to helping people find and maintain jobs and its objection to government-funded religious discrimination by defeating the Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act.

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



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