WASHINGTON -- Republi-cans on the House Judiciary Committee fended off a Democratic effort Thursday to force religious charities that get government money to hire people of all religions.
Legislation to allow the funding is one of President Bush's top domestic priorities, but it faces opposition from a host of civil rights groups and their allies in Congress who fear it will weaken civil rights law by letting churches discriminate in hiring with tax dollars.
It's one of the most contentious aspects of legislation aimed at bringing more churches, synagogues and religious groups into social service.
Under the bill, religious charities may compete for government grants in eight new programs without altering the religious character of their organizations. They could retain religious names, charters and symbols on building walls. And they may consider religion in deciding whom to hire.
A deal worked out this week requires that government money pay only for secular social services. Religious services, prayer or preaching may be offered, but must be separate from the government-funded program and participants can't be forced to attend.
Under current law, churches enjoy an exemption from civil rights laws that bar discrimination in hiring. That means a synagogue can decide to hire only Jews, and a Catholic church hire only Catholics.
The bill keeps that exemption in place, even when the groups accept tax dollars for their secular programs. The committee rejected by a 19-11 party-line vote the Democratic amendment to strip the exemption.
Democrats argued that since the programs would be nonreligious anyway, there's no reason that churches shouldn't be forced to hire people of all religions.
''We do nothing to help poor and needy individuals if we tolerate discrimination,'' said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the committee's top Democrat.
Republicans responded that in many cases, it will be the same people who work for the church and who deliver the social services.
''I don't think it's discrimination for Baptists to want to hire Baptists to do something Baptists want to do,'' said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.
Meanwhile, civil rights icon Rosa Parks became a bit of a political football.
On Monday, she endorsed the Bush initiative. Early Thursday, Democrats distributed a letter where she endorsed the Democrat-ic civil rights amendment. Later Thursday, Republicans passed out yet another letter where Parks said she didn't have enough information to decide where she stood on the amendment.
Parks agreed to write the last letter after being challenged by Republicans and being unable to answer their questions, said Anita Peek, executive director of the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.
''This seems to be a hot issue,'' Peek said.
After a break for the Fourth of July, the Ways and Means Committee planned to take up related provisions giving new tax breaks for charitable contributions, and GOP leaders hoped to see the bill on the House floor by the end of summer.
On the Net: Information on the bill, H.R. 7, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov
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