Bill would allow religious Head Start centers to base hiring on faith

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Editor’s note: The National Head Start Association on July 2 dropped its lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services after the agency agreed to write a new letter to Head Start centers around the country clarifying limits on lobbying activities by teachers and staffs. After a June 30 court hearing, the department and the association agreed on language in a new letter that was sent July 2 to Head Start centers.

WASHINGTON — Religiously oriented groups that provide federal preschool programs could refuse to hire teachers based on their faith, a House panel voted June 12 in approving a scaled-back overhaul of Head Start.

The School Readiness Act (H.R. 2210) would give eight states — not all 50, as the Bush administration wanted — greater control over how they run the nation’s preschool program for the poor.

Overall, the bill aims to expand academic expectations for children, require more teachers to have a college education and improve monitoring to ensure students emerge ready for kindergarten.

But the religion provision, added June 12 by the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, is the latest to cause a partisan divide over a program that has helped roughly 20 million children develop literacy and social skills.

The bill has an anti-discrimination clause, but it would not apply to groups in hiring people whose religion could affect the organization’s work. The idea is backed by a court ruling and intended to keep religious groups from dropping out of the federal program, said Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., the bill’s sponsor.

“Faith-based organizations cannot be expected to sustain their religious mission without the ability to employ individuals who … practice their faith, because it’s that faith that motivates them to serve,” Castle said.

Democrats failed to strip the language from the bill.

“To have legislation that would try and convince faith-based institutions and organizations that they ought to discriminate — I don’t understand it. It’s amazing to me,” said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.

The bill, approved in an 11-9 party-line vote, now goes to the full Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Head Start is up for reauthorization, meaning Congress and the president can rewrite the program.

The bill’s pilot program would allow eight states to take federal Head Start money and merge it with their own spending to better coordinate preschool services. It would be open only to states that have shown a financial commitment to preschool and that agree not to drop their own spending if chosen. States would also have to prove students show improvement.

Critics fear a declining federal role will drop standards, and that Head Start will lose its comprehensive mission of health, nutrition and parental involvement.

“We appreciate the fact that they have limited it, but we are still opposed to it,” said Maureen Thompson, a consultant for the National Head Start Association. “We think it is the first step in dismantling Head Start as it has worked and served children for 38 years.”

Meanwhile, the association filed a lawsuit last week accusing the Bush administration of trying to silence critics of the overhaul.

The federal lawsuit, filed June 11 in Washington, comes in response to a letter from the Health and Human Services Department warning local Head Start centers not to lobby against the legislation. According to the letter, sent by Windy Hill, associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau, which is part of HHS, such lobbying could violate the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from participating in certain political activities.

“Defendants, by sending out the Hill letter, have effectively and intentionally suppressed the expression of views on the reauthorization of the Head Start Act,” the complaint states. “This suppression is a violation of the protections afforded under the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

“No previous Administration has seen fit to slap Head Start instructors and parent/volunteers in the mouth with the threat of possible criminal penalties if they use their free-speech rights to urge Congress to preserve the program that they love and know better than anyone else in America,” said Sarah Greene, association president, in a statement. “For Congress to legislate major changes without being able to hear freely the views of those who are most involved in and affected by the possible changes would be both irresponsible and a real defeat for First Amendment rights.”

The lawsuit asks the court to grant a preliminary injunction preventing HHS from taking any action against the Head Start centers.

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