Saturday was the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination by defense contractors. Last week, Congressman Bobby Scott hosted a press conference and briefing in honor of the anniversary of this event, which marked the first time a U.S. president had acted to combat discrimination by private employers who were using federal taxpayer money. Future presidents expanded on President Roosevelt’s action and added to its protections.
However, this was more than just a celebratory event of an important civil rights milestone: it was a call to action to correct an erosion of equal employment opportunity law that has been in effect since 2002. That’s when President Bush signed an Executive Order that made discrimination on the basis of religion by faith-based organizations using federal taxpayer money legal. In so doing, he reversed our nation’s continuous expansion of the promise of equal protection and opened a gaping hole in our nation’s civil rights protections. Religious entities had always been able to discriminate based on religion using their own money, but never to use taxpayer money to do so.
All the panelists were united in asking President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise of restoring the law. On the panel were: Congressman Bobby Scott (convener of the event); Congressman Jerrold Nadler; Professor Eric Arnesen (professor of history at George Washington University and biographer of civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, whose activism prompted FDR’s executive order); Rabbi David Saperstein (Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and also a board member of our affiliated People For the American Way Foundation); Barbara Arnwine (Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law); Hilary Shelton (Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau); and Rev. Dr. Paul L. Brown, Sr. (Pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church and member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action).
Among other things, speakers discussed how employment discrimination harms the victims and society as a whole; warned that religion can easily be used as a proxy for race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; condemned discrimination paid for by the tax dollars of its victims; asked why the religion of someone ladling out soup for the hungry should matter; and warned of the dangerous consequences to churches that want to retain federal funding they have become dependent on. As the last speaker, Rev. Dr. Brown opened a window into his daily work helping the hungry and the homeless, the “least and the lost,” and strongly condemned federally funded discrimination.
When he was running for President, then-Senator Obama promised to reverse President Bush’s policy, but he has yet to do so. What better time than the anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 8802 for President Obama to put our nation back on the right road and restore through executive order the prohibition against federally funded discrimination? Yesterday, People For the American Way and African American Ministers In Action joined more than 50 other civil rights and religious organizations asking him to do just that.