ACLU Says Bush Support for Head Start Bill Masks Provision Allowing Religious Discrimination in Early Childhood Education

July 7, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to remarks by President Bush this morning in support of the current version of a new Head Start reauthorization bill, the American Civil Liberties Union today again condemned a stealth provision in the legislation that would permit Head Start education providers to discriminate based on religion in their hiring, a move that could cost many talented teachers their jobs and deny many children top quality early childhood education.

“On the very day that President Bush signs this into law, you’ll see a slew of teachers getting fired because they failed to pass newly permitted religious tests for employment,” said Christopher Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Head Start is supposed to be about putting the most qualified educators in front of toddlers who need that early boost to succeed in life – it’s not about government-sanctioned religion in the classroom.”

The bill (H.R. 2210) would authorize religious organizations that operate Head Start programs with federal funds to discriminate using religious criteria when hiring and firing — and would inevitably subject currently employed teachers to new religious tests designed to test their piety or adherence to the particular faith in question. The President’s support for the bill was reiterated in a speech this morning at a Maryland elementary school.

The provision is the latest in a string of under-the-radar legislative and regulatory moves by the Administration to push its faith-based initiative – the central goal of which is allowing religious organizations to discriminate while receiving tax dollars. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a plan to permit the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund the construction of houses of worship and the Boston Globe broke a story about the Department of Labor trying to change its rules to allow the distribution of sacred texts at federal employment training programs.

The current reauthorization legislation would apply the discriminatory goal of the faith-based initiative to the Head Start initiative, a nation-wide early childhood education program, which was implemented in the 1960s to help low- income children get ready for elementary school.

In addition to the swath of religiously motivated firings, the legislation would also abruptly sever the relationships between Head Start pupils and their teachers, who are often the most crucial adult figures in their lives outside their immediate families, and could automatically disqualify parents from becoming classroom volunteers because they subscribe to a different faith than the group running the program.

Additionally, the change in law would likely expand the old adage “11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week” into the classroom. In other words, the religious groups operating Head Start programs would have an incentive to employ teachers of the same race that predominates in their particular denomination, leading to the dismissal of all other teachers in that particular program.

“Congress unceremoniously rejected the core tenets of President Bush’s faith-based initiative,” Anders said. “Our elected representatives need to similarly dismiss this misguided attempt at government-funded religion.”

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