Friday, March 02, 2007

Would someone please remind me why I bothered to vote

Over the past six years, for those of us whose full time job is safeguarding separation of church and state it's been a never ending struggle to insure that Congress not pass a 'faith-based' initiative bill. This has not been an easy accomplishment, given that 'faith-based' initiatives were a cornerstone of the Bush administration -- and he had a Republican controlled Congress.

Frustrated by his inability to get anything out of Congress, the president resorted to implementing 'faith-based' initiatives by executive order. While we are not happy that he took this route, getting an executive order reversed is much easier than reversing a piece of legislation once it's passed and signed into law.

One would think that with Congress under Democratic control we could all breath a collective sigh of relief. Well, think again.

Speaker Pelosi has agreed to allow amendments to the pending Head Start reauthorization bill. Since 1972, the Head Start program has contained a crucial civil rights provision designed to protect the more than 213,000 Head Start teachers and staff and 1,360,000 parent volunteers from employment discrimination based on religion in federally-funded Head Start programs.

What makes her decision particularly egregious is that the current bill has bipartisan support, the organization that represents Head Start providers doesn't want the civil rights protections removed (they have sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to vote against their own funding bill if civil rights roll backs are included), and the ONLY group pushing to have a chance to amend the bill are Congress members aligned with the religious right.

In a letter to House members, the National Head Start Association writes:

NHSA strongly supports and appreciates the valued role faith-based organizations have played in operating Head Start programs for decades. Consistent with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and prevailing federal court decisions, faith-based organizations may discriminate in employment on the basis of religion with private funds but are precluded from doing so when federal funding is being used.

Head Start is a model for demonstrating that a strong prohibition on religious employment discrimination with federal funds is fully compatible with federal assistance to faith-based charities. Faith-based organizations can — and do — fully participate in federally funded programs without discriminating in hiring with those same federal funds. There is no reason to change the law to allow programs to use federal funds to discriminate against employees. Faith-based Head Start programs are more than capable and willing to balance the civil rights of our employees with their religious mission. We are aware of no faith-based Head Start provider that has requested a civil rights rollback in order to fulfill its important mission; to the contrary, our Head Start providers believe that civil rights protections in the program must be maintained and are critical to Head Start’s success and fulfilling its mission.

We are greatly concerned that removing civil rights protections for employees could have a negative impact on the children and families who participate in these programs. Tens of thousands of at-risk 3- and 4-year-old children currently in Head Start could lose their teachers – who often are the most important adults to whom they have bonded, other than their parents – not because those teachers are doing a bad job, but because they are the “wrong” religion. Such a provision is incompatible with our deeply rooted traditions, our faith, and the mission of this program.

According to the latest study from the National Head Start Association, the program enjoys a soaring 96% parental satisfaction rate. The Administration for Children & Family (“ACF”) repeatedly has noted that respect and sensitivity to cultural diversity are paramount to Head Start’s success. The ACF and the National Head Start Association both agree that in order to best serve the needs of Head Start children, it is crucial that a Head Start center’s staff be comprised of individuals from diverse backgrounds who reflect the diversity of the community it serves.

Without the existing religious nondiscrimination provisions, children participating in Head Start could potentially stand to lose their teachers, as well as vital educational interactions with their own parents who, in the past, have been strongly encouraged to volunteer for Head Start.

And allowing discrimination based on religion would send a terrible message to Head Start children whose families do not subscribe to a particular religious organization’s beliefs. It also would harm community members who rely on Head Start for jobs and deprive families of the civil rights protections applicable to public schools under other statutes.

Parents and communities that rely on Head Start programs should not have to choose between the renewal of the Head Start program and longstanding civil rights protections that are a cornerstone of this invaluable program. Clearly, faith-based providers do not need a repeal of 35-year old civil rights protections to continue to provide Head Start services. And every president since 1971 – including Ronald Reagan – has signed the reauthorization with the protections in place.

This is not the time for Democrats to try and appease Republicans. The last time a Democrat did this he was impeached.

The Education and Labor Committee vote on this is March 14. If your Representative is on the committee, call and urge them to vote against any amendment that would rollback civil rights protections. If the bill comes out of committee with an amendment, or an amendment is added from the floor, urge your Representative to vote AGAINST the bill.

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