by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- The Job Training Improvement Act sounds like legislation designed to increase employment and improve economic wellbeing -- and most of it is.
But the bill passed March 2 by the U.S. House of Representatives contains one provision that is generating all-out opposition by a large number of religious, civil rights, labor, educational, and other advocacy groups.
The provision allows religious organizations involved in federal job training programs to discriminate according to religion when hiring staff for taxpayer-funded services.
The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination charges that such discrimination -- which many see as part of the George W. Bush administration's broad support of a "faith-based initiative" -- breaches the Constitutional separation of church and state, and explicitly contradicts legislation previously signed into law.
The co-sponsors of the bill, Howard P. McKeon, a California Republican, and three other Republican members, summarize their position this way: "The bill protects the rights of faith-based groups willing to participate in the nation's job training system. The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act makes clear that faith-based groups have the right to hire workers on a religious basis and that such hiring practices do not constitute discrimination."
Pres. Bush has endorsed this position. But opponents say it is unconstitutional.
"Since their inception in 1982, our laws have included civil rights protections against employment discrimination," Terri Schroeder, senior lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a member of the coalition, told IPS.
"Faith-based organizations have always participated, and have always played by the same rules as other service providers."
The coalition includes such groups as the AFL-CIO, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Association of University Women, the American Federation Teachers, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Episcopal Church, USA, Catholics for a Free Choice, the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, and many others.
The coalition has been lobbying for an amendment to ban such discrimination.
"Current law prohibits participants in federal job training programs from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or political affiliation or belief," it says.
"President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Job Training Partnership Act, which contains the very same civil rights provision that (the current proposal) now seeks to repeal as it applies to religious organizations," the coalition said in a letter to Congress.
"This 23-year-old provision has worked well since the inception of this program, allowing religious organizations to provide government-funded services while maintaining America's bedrock commitment to protecting both civil rights and religious liberty." The ACLU adds, "Throughout its 21-year history, the civil rights provision has not been an obstacle to the participation of religiously-affiliated organizations in federal job training programs. In fact, many religiously-affiliated organizations participate in the programs and comply with the same civil rights provision that apply to everyone else."
Last year, the Senate passed its version of the faith-based initiative after stripping out any provisions that could have created special advantages for federally-funded religious organizations.
The sponsors of the legislation and a majority of the Senate supported the eradication of religious discrimination in federally-funded employment positions -- and did not want to roll back any civil rights protections.
The House, divided largely along party lines, passed the bill 224-200, defeating an amendment by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia and six other Democrats to restore existing civil rights protections.
According to Rep. McKeon, 2.7 million new jobs have been created since August 2003.
"Faith-based providers who are willing to help provide job training and other critical social services shouldn't be denied the opportunity, and that's why they are allowed to participate under this bill," said Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio.
Other provisions of the proposed law would eliminate duplication by consolidating the three adult job training programs into one, streamlining program administration, and allowing unemployed people to create personal reemployment accounts of up to 3,000 dollars to help them purchase job training and other key services, such as child care, transportation services, and housing assistance.
It also seeks to enhance partnerships between local businesses, community colleges, and the local one-stop delivery system, and to improve adult education and vocational rehabilitation. Civil libertarians and most in Congress favour these provisions.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to face far more opposition.
March 9, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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