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Head Start Bill Turns Allies Upside Down

June 9, 2005 By:
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In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives will consider a bill that reauthorizes funding for the federal Head Start institution, which pays for after-school programs for primarily disadvantaged and minority children.

On the face of it, it's not too controversial, at least to the organized Jewish community.

But Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the committee that unanimously voted to send this bill - called the School Readiness Act of 2005 - to the floor, indicated last month that he intends to offer an amendment to the legislation. That, in a nutshell, would shield faith-based organizations - churches and synagogues, for example - that run Head Start programs from federal anti-discrimination employment laws.

"I'm committed to adding language to this bill that will ensure faith-based organizations can compete for federal Head Start grants," said Boehner in

a May 11 statement, "without surrendering their constitutionally protected right to take religion into account in their hiring practices."

According to Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, therein lies the problem.

"There are a fair number of Head Start programs - around 5 to 10 percent - in churches and synagogues and they've operated [under the current restrictions] just fine," said Lieberman. "You don't have to be a Presbyterian to teach in a Head Start program housed in a Presbyterian church. That's just obvious."

Not quite, asserted Nathan Diament, the director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Despite the fact that Diament and Lieberman recently joined forces on a Supreme Court case, they've parted ways when it comes to this bill.

Diament, echoing similar statements made by President George W. Bush following his administration's renewed push in 2003 to give faith-based groups greater access to federal dollars, said such programs are already prohibited by federal law from discriminating against clients. That wouldn't change.

At issue is the identity of the religious institution, noted Diament: "We don't believe religious organizations should have to sacrifice their constitutional right [to religious expression] for the sake of receiving equal treatment in federal grant programs."

A Catholic charity, for instance, has a vested interest in having Catholics work for it, regardless of whether or not non-Catholics participate in its Head Start program, he argued.

Lieberman, just as emphatically, asserted that no one would ever assume that the head of a Catholic charity would be anyone other than a Catholic.

While both offered their comments by telephone, the pair also sounded off on the issue at a June 2 luncheon sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

At that event, held in the Jewish Community Services Building in Philadelphia, each noted that despite their disparate stances, they'd worked together recently, arguing for the rights of incarcerated individuals to freely practice their religion.

The Supreme Court endorsed their argument in a unanimous opinion handed down last week.

Pressure the Legislators

To advance his cause on the Head Start issue, Lieberman has won the support of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, which has urged community relations councils nationwide to pressure legislators in Washington to defeat the Boehner amendment. In Pennsylvania, the ADL has identified Reps. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6), Curt Weldon (R-District 7), Don Sherwood (R-District 10) and Todd Platts (R-District 19) for its lobbying drive.

Despite the majority of Jews represented by both the ADL and JCPA - if history is a guide - the short-term advantage would appear to go to the Orthodox community and the Boehner amendment the O.U. supports.

In 2003, the same shielding language was included in an identical bill that passed the House of Representatives along party lines. It stalled, however, in the Senate. u

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