House Panel OKs Head Start Bill Despite Bitter Fight Over Religion

Posted March 15, 2007 at 9:41am

Legislation to reauthorize early childhood education funding moved one step closer to enactment today despite a contentious and partisan battle over religion as a factor in hiring practices at faith-based institutions.

The Improving Head Start Act of 2007 (H.R. 1429) passed out of the House Education and Labor Committee with a technical amendment in the nature of a substitute by a vote of 42-1.

The amendment as a substitute would change qualifications for the program to 130 percent above poverty levels and provide increased emphasis on directing money to improve teacher and classroom quality, The amendment would also require a study on the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on Head Start programs in the Gulf region and would include provisions regarding mental health.

The bill also included several other amendments, including a provision prohibiting a national database of information based on children’s records, another providing funding and setting standards for transportation of children, and others to develop programs to fight obesity and improve access to rural areas.

One amendment, sponsored by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), may set up a fight in the Senate. The amendment, which was defeated 4-39, would have scaled back a requirement that 50 percent of teachers in Head Start meet increased educational qualifications by 2013; the amendment would have made it a non-binding goal. The Senate version (S. 556), sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), would also make the 50 percent standard non-binding.

The final vote came after Democrats defeated a Republican amendment that would have allowed religious institutions to use religion as a reason to hire or fire employees. The fight, which lasted several hours, pitted Republicans, who argued the issue was one of an institution’s civil liberties, against Democrats, who countered that an individual’s civil rights were at stake.

Prohibiting religious institutions from using a person’s religion to make personnel decisions amounts to a surrender of their religious rights, the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Luis Fortuño (R-P.R.), argued. “We’re just trying to avoid discrimination, nothing else.”

But Democrats weren’t buying it. “Thomas Jefferson is rolling over in his grave” from the civil liberties argument, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) said. The proposal is “repugnant,” Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) added. “No person should have to pass a religious test to qualify for a public job.”

As the rhetoric crescendoed, lawmakers accused one another of bias. When Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) asserted that if the policy were instituted, less qualified instructors may be teaching America’s children, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) countered that “to make such a blanket statement is a form of religious bias.” Scott, for his part, likened the proposal to “sitting in the back of the bus.”

In the end, the amendment was defeated along party lines, 19 to 26.

Other amendments — including one to create a pilot plan to allow several states to pool their efforts and their resources with other state-run early childhood development programs — fell as well. This amendment, sponsored by Souder, was defeated on a party-line vote, 19 to 27.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), did not attend any of the markup. Kildee presided in his absence.

Vote to adopt H.R. 1429 — 42 to 1

George Miller NV

Dale Kildee Y

Donald Payne Y

Robert Andrews Y

Bobby Scott Y

Lynn Woolsey Y

Ruben Hinojosa Y

Carolyn McCarthy Y

John Tierney Y

Dennis Kucinich Y

David Wu Y

Rush Holt Y

Susan Davis Y

Danny Davis Y

Raul Grijalva Y

Timothy Bishop Y

Linda Sanchez Y

John Sarbanes Y

Joe Sestak Y

Dave Loebsack Y

Mazie Hirono Y

Jason Altmire Y

John Yarmuth Y

Philip Hare Y

Yvette Clarke Y

Joseph Courtney Y

Carol Shea-Porter Y

REPUBLICANS:

Howard McKeon Y

Thomas Petri Y

Peter Hoekstra Y

Michael Castle Y

Mark Souder Y

Vernon Ehlers Y

Judy Biggert Y

Todd Platts Y

Ric Keller Y

Joe Wilson Y

John Kline Y

Cathy McMorris Rodgers Y

Kenny Marchant NV

Tom Price Y

Luis Fortuno Y

Charles Boustany Y

Virginia Foxx Y

Randy Kuhl Y

Rob Bishop Y

David Davis Y

Timothy Walberg N

Dean Heller Y

Fortuno amendment — 19 to 26

All Democrats voted against it. (Miller not present)

All Republicans voted for it (Platts, Foxx, Bishop not present)

Souder amendment — 4 to 39

All Democrats voted against it. (Miller not present)

All Republicans voted against it, except for Souder, Fortuno, Joe Wilson and Kline

Price amendment — 18 to 27

All Democrats voted against it. (Miller not present)

One Republican (Souder) voted against it. (Bishop, Hoekstra, Platts,

Foxx and Marchant not present)