February 6, 2015

Faith-based organizations would receive exemption through bill

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A bill to ensure that faith-based institutions can enter into state contracts while maintaining fidelity to their mission passed a Senate panel by a 7-0 vote.

The measure, Senate Bill 127, would clarify a question the Indiana attorney general’s office has raised whether faith-based organizations may maintain that their employees adhere to tenants of the faith when the institution enters into a service contract with the government.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, author of the measure, presented his bill to the Senate Civil Law Committee during a Jan. 26, meeting. Holdman told the panel members that concerns were recently raised whether faith-based organizations could enter into a state contract while requiring the employees to adhere to certain tenants of faith.

Holdman explained what happened during a recent contract renewal process. He said that Indiana Wesleyan University had a contract for years with the Department of Workforce Development to provide job training for individuals who were referred to them, but during the contract renewal process, the attorney general’s office said that these contracts were judged to be not permissible under Indiana law because employees of Indiana Wesleyan University are required to sign a tenants of faith agreement as a condition of employment. Holdman said that it has been common practice for close to a century. However, the attorney general’s office said that contracts like these could constitute a violation of Indiana law.

“Senate Bill 127 would create an exemption in Indiana law that is consistent with a religious exemption provided in federal law,” Holdman said. “There was an exemption that was carved out for religious organizations as well as foreign corporations on the federal level.”

He explained that some foreign corporations doing business in the U.S. said they needed their people working here to abide by their tenants of faith or religious beliefs. “The exemption was established for religious beliefs and for foreign companies,” Holdman said. “This type of exemption dates back to [President] Dwight D. Eisenhower,” and has continued to the present day regardless of the presidential administration’s political affiliation.

“Having been a former Department of Child Services (DCS) director, faith-based organizations provide the support we need for kids that are placed in out-of-home care,” Holdman said. “If you take a look at that list of providers, the large majority of them are faith-based organizations.”

He added that faith-based initiatives have been a common practice around the country for more than a decade, if not longer.

“Basically, what we are trying to prevent is a slippery slope that says that we’re now going to prohibit these religious organizations from practicing their faith and provide these needed services to the state of Indiana,” Holdman said.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, who testified in support of the bill said, “The Catholic Church and its institutions serve a very religiously diverse population, and oftentimes we do this in coordination with many local public and private institutions.

“The ability of the religious institution to ask that those who work for us act in accordance and harmony with the mission of the Church is a critical need to preserve the integrity of the institution and fidelity to our mission,” he added. “The Catholic Church and their agencies hire persons based on overall qualifications, including religion. Our mission is the extension of our religious charity in a variety of ways, and that’s why Congress and the federal government have provided that there be a carve out [exemption] or an opportunity for religious institutions to have an exception with regard to employment.”

Tebbe told lawmakers that Senate Bill 127 clarifies for state and local contracts what federal law and long-standing practice allowed.

“Our health care providers, our schools, our Catholic Charities, our ministries, including adoptions, family shelters, food banks, pregnancy centers and a host of other ministries rely on cooperation and collaboration with community agencies and state and local offices,” he said.

Tebbe explained that sometimes these services and collaborations involve contracts that protect all involved.

“Passage of Senate Bill 127 would allow us to continue to serve our neighbors and the common good without jeopardizing our integrity and fidelity to our mission,” he added.

In his closing remarks, Holdman recalled his experience with DCS, saying, “The majority of all the providers for out-of-home care are religious institutions. United Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, nearly all denominations and faiths do that. And even to speak for our Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus, if they were attempting to provide that service or had a contract with the state, for people within their faith, without this carve out, they would be prohibited from doing so.”

Senate Bill 127 received no opposition during the hearing. Tebbe said he expects the bill to pass the Senate by mid-February.

(For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, its Indiana Catholic Action Network, and the bills it is following in the Indiana General Assembly this year, log on to www.indianacc.org. Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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