Letter to the President on Employment Discrimination
June 21, 2011
Mr. Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Mr. President:
We, the undersigned religious, civil rights, labor, health, women's, and other organizations, write to remind you of the upcoming seventieth anniversary of Executive Order 8802, which was the first executive order prohibiting government contractors from engaging in employment discrimination. In honor of this anniversary, we urge you to fully restore this civil rights protection by rescinding the language in Executive Order 13279 that permits religious organizations that contract with the government to discriminate against federally funded employees on the basis of religion.
Many of the undersigned organizations are members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), which is a broad and diverse coalition formed in the mid-1990s to oppose legislative and regulatory efforts that eliminate the traditional safeguards that protect civil rights and religious liberty when government partners with faith-based organizations.
One of these traditional safeguards is the guarantee that otherwise qualified people are not disqualified from federally funded jobs because of their religion. This safeguard was first put in place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he signed Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941. The executive order prohibited employment discrimination by defense contractors based on "race, creed, color, or national origin." This was the first action taken by the government to promote equal opportunity for all Americans, and the start of our longstanding, national commitment to barring even private organizations from discriminating in hiring using federal funds.
In subsequent executive orders, Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson expanded the protections. Indeed, Executive Order 11246, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, prohibits discrimination in all government contracts. These executive orders led to the enactment of scores of civil rights statutes that prohibit discrimination, especially by recipients of federal funds.
Yet, in 2002, President George W. Bush rolled back these traditional safeguards and core civil rights protections for applicants for some government-funded jobs.3 Executive Order 13279, exempts religious organizations that receive government contracts from the requirements of Executive Order 11246 and allows them to discriminate in hiring based on religion. This civil rights rollback remains in place today.
We ask, therefore, that you take this opportunity to celebrate this civil rights landmark anniversary by restoring Executive Order 11246 to its original form, reinstating the anti-discrimination provision for all organizations. The traditional safeguard protecting against discrimination in government-funded jobs is particularly critical in government contracts. The government, in purchasing necessary goods and services for its own use, must not fund discrimination. President John F. Kennedy explained the importance of guaranteeing equal opportunity in government contracts: "[I]t is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment . . . on government contracts. . . ." From 1941 until 2002 this had been the law of the land. And since 1941, our values have reflected a strong commitment to ensuring that no one is disqualified from government funded jobs because of his or her religion.
Restoring Executive Order 11246 for all government contractors would be an important first step toward fulfilling the campaign promise you made on July 1, 2008, in Zanesville, Ohio. In that speech you stated that you would reform the Faith-Based Initiative so that "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them - or against the people you hire - on the basis of their religion." Yet, even though officials from your administration have said that the issue is being reviewed by the Justice Department and have expressed a commitment to ensuring that partnerships with religious organizations are consistent with our law and values, we have seen no forward movement on this issue.
Accordingly, we urge you to honor this anniversary by rescinding Executive Order 13279's amendment of Executive Order 11246 that exempted religious organizations that contract with the government from the prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of religion. This would restore key civil rights protections that were first established seventy years ago and is consistent with our nation's values.