Catholic Charities in D.C. adds hiring clause on church tenets

Washington, USA - Shortly after imposing limits on spousal health benefits for employees, Catholic Charities of Washington has begun requiring new employees to promise they will not "violate the principles or tenets" of the church.

That language was added March 3 to a hiring letter that new employees are required to sign, according to spokesman Erik Salmi. He said the move did not reflect a policy change because employees have been told during training that the organization is Catholic in more than name.

Catholic Charities, one of the region's largest nonprofit organizations, has been trying to develop a way to continue its multimillion-dollar social service partnerships with the District while not recognizing the city's same-sex marriage law, which the D.C. Council approved in December. Employees were told this month that the agency was changing its health-care coverage to avoid offering benefits to its workers' same-sex partners.

Salmi said the addition of the clause to the hiring letter was not a result of the new law but rather reflected a longer-term concern that employees adhere to the organization's Catholic philosophy.

Salmi said the new language "is more of an expectation than a condition. It's letting people know this is the culture." Asked if that meant employees could speak or act against the church without being fired, Salmi said: "We can't speculate on the hypothetical. It's handled on a case-by-case basis."

A former vice president of the organization's human resources department, however, said the new language appeared to be a change.

"Putting it in a letter and requiring a signature, that's a condition of employment. There's no way to dance around that," said Wayne Swann, who served 3 1/2 years on Catholic Charities' board of directors and an additional four years as its vice president.

On the basis of Supreme Court rulings, President George W. Bush issued executive orders allowing faith-based social service groups that receive public money to discriminate in their hiring practices. As a candidate, President Obama sided with those opposing such hiring limits and vowed to stop them. But since Obama took office, the issue has remained under study by the Justice Department.

Federal and D.C. laws explicitly give religious groups exemptions from bans on religiously based employment discrimination, but some church-state experts point to federal funding statutes -- including those for Head Start and the Workforce Investment Act -- that ban such preferences. The Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits discrimination in government-funded programs, they say.

"Taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for positions to which they can't apply, solely on the basis of their faith," said Dan Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

There is no hard data on the percentage of faith-based social service groups that have religious hiring requirements in an effort to maintain their faith identity. World Vision, one of the largest Christian relief organizations in the world, requires U.S.-based employees to sign a statement saying they agree with the organization's tenets or the Apostles' Creed.

A 2007 survey by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government found that about half of religious congregations said personal religious belief should be a hiring requirement. A quarter said it was preferred but not required, and about 10 percent said it was not relevant to hiring.

The policies of other U.S. branches of Catholic Charities are not clear. A spokesman for the national organization said it does not compile that information.