Democratic politicians and some education groups are sparring with the Department of Education over civil rights protections specifically included—or excluded, the agency says—in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.
The Education Department is working on its guidance language to help direct how the revised version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should be interpreted at the local level. Democrats say the law was written to make sure that faith-based groups that receive federal money to provide educational services will comply with all civil rights laws. That includes, they argue, a prohibition against employment discrimination by religious groups receiving federal education aid.
Education Department officials say they disagree with that interpretation. Officials there say the language in the new law instead makes it clear that existing civil rights laws aren’t superseded. Existing law allows religious groups to hire with an applicant’s religion in mind, allowing a Roman Catholic group, for example, to screen out Protestants as potential employees.
In a letter dated June 4, Education Department General Counsel Brian W. Jones said guidance language that added new “civil rights obligations for specific federal programs would undermine the thrust of the civil rights laws.”
On June 27, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, wrote to the Education Department pressing officials there to rethink that stance.
The two Democrats said language was specifically inserted into the No Child Left Behind Act to make it clear that all civil rights protections must be enforced, even for religious groups.
Education Department spokesman Daniel Langan said his office is reviewing the letter and would respond.
John A. Liekweg, an associate general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, said the education law doesn’t contain language forcing religious groups to abandon hiring preferences. “If we’d have to change our hiring practices, there would be some concern,” he said.
Randall J. Moody, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said the 2.7 million-member teachers’ union is also pushing for the department to issue guidance language that indicates religious groups cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.
“What it really comes down to is, can these religious organizations discriminate in their hiring practices when they hire people to do the services in programs paid for by federal funding?” Mr. Moody said. “They (department officials) say yes; we say no.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Rules on Hiring by Religious Groups at Issue