Church and State, September, 2003

House Approves Religious Discrimination In Head Start

By a one-vote margin, the U.S. House of Representatives in late July approved a Head Start reauthorization bill that gives publicly funded religious groups the right to discriminate when hiring staff for the program.

The bill, called the School Readiness Act of 2003, allows church-run Head Start centers to turn away job seekers who fail to meet religious strictures and to fire staff members who do not conform to religious doctrine or conduct. An amendment to H.R. 2210 offered by U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) to strip the employment discrimination provision from the bill was defeated.

Public education groups, children's advocates and constitu­tional rights groups have urged lawmakers to avoid altering Head Start, which has provided millions of America's poor fam­ilies with educational and nutritional assistance for their young­sters.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans Untied for Separation of Church and State, called the House bill "terribly flawed" and urged the Senate to defeat its proposed changes to Head Start.

However, Religious Right groups supporting the House's Head Start bill are calling on the Senate to follow the House's lead. According to James Dobson's Family News In Focus, a group of "faith-based organizations" is lobbying senators to include the employment discrimination provision in the Head Start bill. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions is scheduled to take up the Head Start bill in September. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chair of the committee, told the AP on Aug. 4 that whatever reform of Head Start emerges from Congress, he hopes it will include "boilerplate language" allowing religious Head Start centers to consider religion in hiring.