President Barack Obama (Pic by The White House, via Flickr)

Fifty-six organizations sent a letter to President Obama yesterday asking him to clarify his position on the ability of publicly funded institutions to hire or fire people based on their religion.

Catholics for Choice and 55 other religious, civil rights, labor, and health groups sent a letter (.pdf) to Obama asking him to comment on remarks he made “at a town hall meeting on July 22 in College Park, MD,” according to the group’s press release.

The groups took issue with the president suggesting “that he supports allowing religious organizations to hire and fire employees in federally funded positions based upon the employee’s religion”:

This statement is in direct contradiction to comments he made while campaigning for the presidency. In 2008, candidate Obama avowed that he “firmly believes in the principle of non-discrimination in our hiring laws…. ” He even reiterated that “taxpayer dollars should not be used to support hiring discrimination and religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs—just like any other federal contractor.”

The letter noted that the signatories’ frustration “is bolstered by other instances in which we believe the administration could have easily taken steps to overturn or otherwise address the troubling hiring discrimination policies adopted by the previous administration but did not.”

Effective government collaboration with faith-based groups requires us neither to abandon robust protection of church-state separation nor to allow federally funded religious discrimination. However, the president’s contradictory statements have led some to question whether the restoration of church-state separation protections is an administration priority. The letter seeks to open a dialogue, with the hope of encouraging the implementation of the Executive Order to reform and make other critical changes to the Faith-Based Initiative.

The group also notes that, as religious organizations are granted more public funds, there is a growing need to address this issue. In its letter, the group writes:

Federal funds are being expended every day under the same inadequate constitutional protections that were imposed by the previous Administration. Most recently, at the July 22 Town Hall Meeting, you responded to a question regarding taxpayer-funded religious discrimination by stating that religious organizations have “more leeway” to “hire somebody who is a believer of that particular faith.” We hope that this statement does not reflect a reversal of your commitment to end federally funded religious discrimination.

In Florida, there is currently a ballot measure that seeks to repeal a constitutional ban on the outright funding of religious organizations with public money. One of the greater concerns about the state moving public services to religious organizations has been that religious organizations do not follow nondiscrimination laws like other publicly funded organizations.

This is something that one of the biggest proponents of Florida’s ballot measure has pointed out in the past. In a release authored by the Florida Catholic Conference, the group says that if the amendment passes in 2012 the state will not “force faith-based organizations to comply with certain anti-discrimination laws.”

The organization states that “faith-based organizations are not currently required to forgo their right to hire based on religious belief as a condition of participating in state-financed programs. In addition, faith-based entities are not forced to participate in any legislatively-enacted program and therefore would not be obligated to comply with program requirements.”

This past July, a group of educators and religious leaders sued the state over this measure. In the letter to President Obama, the group states that the issue “has led some to question whether the restoration of church-state separation protections is an Administration priority.”

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