WASHINGTON (RNS) President Obama’s status-quo stance on the controversial issue of faith-based hiring has drawn criticism from atheists and church-state watchdogs.
Responding to an atheist at a town hall last week at the University of Maryland, College Park, the president discussed whether religious groups receiving government funds should be permitted to make religion-related hiring decisions.

“I think that the balance we’ve tried to strike is to say that … if you have set up a nonprofit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, then you have to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices,” he said Friday (July 22).

“If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a mosque or a church, then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.”

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, called Obama’s response “a departure from the opposition to such discrimination he unequivocally stated while on the campaign trail” in 2008.

The person who questioned the president, Amanda Knief of the Secular Coalition for America, also criticized Obama’s comment.

“Unfortunately, the president didn’t address the most egregious aspect of this policy—that religious discrimination is occurring on the taxpayer’s dime,” she said.

A coalition of two dozen leaders who support the current policy recently sent a letter to Obama asking him to retain it.

Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, one of the signatories, was pleased with the president’s defense of some faith-based hiring.

“That’s allowed government partnerships with religious groups to flourish, for the good of those served and the good of our society,” he said.

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