By Laura Meckler
WASHINGTON – Urged on by the Salvation Army, the White House is considering new regulations that would allow taxpayer-funded religious groups to bypass local and state laws that bar discrimination against gay people.
The Salvation Army pressed for the change when asked by White House officials to name the barriers churches face in working with government. In return for making the regulatory change, the Army agreed to lobby Congress to pass legislation opening more government programs to religious charities, according to an internal Salvation Army document.
According to the document, the administration had made a firm commitment to make the change once the legislation moves through Congress, though White House and Salvation Army officials said today that no final decision had been made.
At issue are increasingly popular state and local laws that bar discrimination against gays and lesbians. Some ban discrimination in hiring; others require employers to offer health insurance and other benefits to the domestic partners of gay employees. Typically, these laws do not apply to religious groups. But it’s not clear whether groups lose that exemption once they accept taxpayer dollars.
The Army, a Christian church that operates a national network of social services, wants federal regulations to bar state and local governments from enforcing these laws toward religious organizations when they do accept government money, said Salvation Army spokesman David Fuscus.
But President Bush could rewrite a federal regulation to ban enforcement of these laws for religious groups that get federal dollars, which often pass through local and state government.
The Salvation Army internal report suggests that its chances of seeing the regulatory change will improve with the passage of legislation pending in Congress. That legislation, often called “charitable choice,” gives churches, synagogues and other religious groups the right to compete for government money without divorcing themselves from their religious character.
“It is important that the Army’s support for the White House’s activities occur simultaneously with efforts to achieve the Army’s objectives,” said the document. “The White House has already said that they are committed to move on the Army’s objectives when the legislation carrying the charitable choice provisions passes the House of Representatives.”
The report said the Salvation Army would enlist more than 100 of its leaders to lobby members of Congress for the legislation “in a prearranged agreement with the White House.”
It report added that White House officials want to move the legislation first “and use the political momentum of this” to push through the regulatory change. It said the White House had made a firm commitment to act on the issue after the legislation was approved.
The White House denied today that there was a relationship between the Salvation Army’s support and the change in regulation. Asked if there was a trade-off, spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “Oh no, absolutely not.” He added that there never has been a deal and that the author of the report misread the administration’s position. “They’ve been advised of that.”
But the White House did not deny that it believes religious groups should be allowed to discriminate in hiring, even if they take taxpayer dollars. “The administration fully supports the civil rights law, which allows religious organizations the right to hire people in keeping with their own faith’s traditions,” said spokeswoman Karen Hughes.
The Salvation Army said today that the report overstated the strategic relationship between the two issues.
“The bottom line was that the Army was talking with the White House about this. The White House was looking at the issue. They had made no commitment to act,” Fuscus said. He said that passages in the report linking the legislation and the regulation were “someone’s opinion. That was not a strategic plan from the White House.”
But he said the issues are related in content because local anti-discrimination laws could discourage the Salvation Army and other religious groups from taking government money to provide social services.
“As long as there is a debate out there about these issues, this is a very good time for these issues to be addressed,” Fuscus said.
He added that the Salvation Army has no interest in even asking about sexual orientation in hiring staff for most of its 55,000 positions. But it does believe it should retain the right to reject gays for ministerial positions.
“As a church, the Army does insist that those people who have religious responsibilities, who are ministers, share the theology and lifestyle of the church,” he said.
The Salvation Army report was first reported in The Washington Post today, and Fuscus confirmed its content.
The administration came under immediate attack for its plans. “The administration appears to be engaging in back-room deals to ensure that federally funded discrimination remains legal,” said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.
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