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Faith-Based Plan Draws Fire Bush Seeks to Let Religious Groups Hire As They Please

By Jonathan Peterson and Edwin Chen

WASHINGTON -- From Catholic Charities in San Francisco to a Baptist home in Kentucky to Salvation Army posts around the country, faith-based groups have long defended personnel practices that collide with public laws.

Now, as President Bush pushes his plan to increase the role of religious groups in providing social services, many are clamoring to keep their special exemption to discriminate in hiring.

In a political firestorm Tuesday, White House officials backed away from a proposal to help the Salvation Army fight for its right to discriminate against homosexuals.

But even without that provision, under legislation working its way through the House, faith-based employers would still retain broad, legal rights to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring -- rights they were granted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The bill will “ensure that religious organizations have the right to hire individuals who share their religious faith,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

The dispute over discrimination is only partly about the right of faith-based groups to exclude staffers based on the clear-cut matter of religious affiliation. In addition, critics argue that such traits as sexual preference, pregnancy status, whether someone has been divorced and possibly gender could be used by faith-based employers to veto potential hires or dismiss employees.

Courts have affirmed the right of a Catholic school to fire a teacher for marrying a divorced man, the right of a Christian retirement home to fire a Muslim receptionist who insisted on wearing a head covering, the right of a Baptist nursing school to fire an employee who became the minister of a gay-oriented church, and the right of a Catholic school to dismiss a teacher who remarried without getting her first marriage annulled under Catholic doctrine.

The broad exemption to the civil rights law reflects the demands of many religious institutions to retain their ability to hire those who fit in with their spiritual vision -- but also has prompted calls for more rigid limits on possible bias in hiring.