Civil Rights Leaders Warn Of Constitutional Defects In H.R. 7

A large group of civil right leaders gathered on Capitol Hill today to muster opposition to the Bush administration’s plan for government-funding of religious groups, his so-called "faith-based" initiative.

"We really only have a few major problems with HR 7: It is unfair. It is unwise. It is unconstitutional," Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way, told the civil rights leaders and lawmakers before a gathering on the House Triangle this morning.

Only days before the House is expected to vote on H.R. 7, a bill sponsored by Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and Tony Hall, D-Ohio, leaders from the NAACP, People For the American Way, the ACLU and from other civil rights groups argued for defeat of a bill they said would permit federally supported discrimination.

Neas urged the House to reject H.R. 7.

"The White House publicly retreated from its secret deal with the Salvation Army to allow it to discriminate," Neas said. "But don’t be fooled by the White House spin. This bill would accomplish the same thing – and with the blessing of the House."

Neas’s complete statement follows:

We really only have a few major problems with HR 7: It is unfair. It is unwise. It is unconstitutional.

People For the American Way has consistently opposed government funding for religion on the same grounds. It puts government officials in the position of picking and choosing among religions, which is a sure recipe for divisiveness and confrontation. It violates the separation of church and state in a way that threatens both government and religion.

For all of these reasons we have opposed the Bush administration’s plans to divert limited public funds for social services into so-called charitable choice programs.

The specific bill we are here to address, H.R. 7, makes all these problems concrete. And it goes further, ensuring that government funds will be used to support discrimination against people seeking social services or seeking employment with social service providers. It even seeks to override anti-discrimination laws that have been enacted by state and local governments to protect the rights of gay men and lesbians.

The White House publicly retreated from its secret deal with the Salvation Army to allow it to discriminate. But don’t be fooled by the White House spin. This bill would accomplish the same thing -- and with the blessing of the Congress.

This bill demonstrates just how dangerous this administration’s entire initiative for providing government funding for religious charities is.

The president has been trying to convince Americans and Congress that H.R. 7’s constitutional defects have been fixed. President Bush went before a gathering of mayors to proclaim that the bill would not undermine church-state separation or allow religious groups to discriminate.

That is just not true.

As many other people here today have already noted, H.R. 7 has not been altered to address our constitutional or civil rights concerns. In fact, the bill has actually been made worse. The latest version of H.R. 7, which was recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee, was stripped of a provision that would have offered alternative programs for people seeking social services without a religious message.

People For the American Way understands and appreciates the important work that religious groups do every day on behalf of the needy. Private, religious-based groups, such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and United Jewish Communities, have a successful tradition of using government funds to operate social services. These groups, however, do not use federal monies to proselytize and their government-funded activities are subject to federal civil rights laws. H.R. 7 would do away with that successful model and give religious groups free reign to advance their religious missions with tax dollars. That is not morally or constitutionally sound.

Equal opportunity should be more than just a noble-sounding ideal. It should be a bedrock value that guides the Congress and is reflected in the legislation it passes. By any measure, H.R. 7, fails that test. That’s why Congress should reaffirm its commitment to equality for all and defeat H.R. 7.

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