Rhode Island Bill Would Allow Churches to Screen Volunteers or Employees

By Michael Klazema on 7/3/2017
A bill pending in the Rhode Island legislature would allow churches and religious institutions in the state to conduct background checks on prospective employees and volunteers. Per a report from The Valley Breeze, the legislation would “protect churches and religious organizations from liability” if they chose not to hire a person or accept a volunteer due to criminal background check findings. The legislation would stop churches from having to comply with all the regulations of the EEOC and the FCRA.

As reports indicate, the legislation was given unanimous approval by the State House of Representatives. A companion bill has already passed the State Senate. The House bill will go to the Senate for approval.

The bill’s gestation dates to 2015 when the Director of Religious Education at a Barrington area church was arrested on child pornography charges. Coverage notes that the sponsors of the legislation wanted to put something in place that would help churches vet their employees and volunteers with the stated goal of keeping kids safe.

Under the legislation, any church or religious institution in Rhode Island can require criminal background checks for jobs or volunteer opportunities that would involve regular contact with children. So long as the person seeking the job or volunteer opportunity is 18 years of age or older, coverage explains, the church would have the freedom to request a background check through the National Bureau of Criminal Identification. Churches would not be required to run the background checks, but would have the legal grounds to do so if they wanted.

According to the Valley Breeze report, the background checks in this case would work a bit differently than they do for standard pre-employment screening purposes. Churches would not be given background check reports outlining the specifics of a person’s criminal record. Instead, the background check report would tell the church whether the prospective employee or volunteer had “disqualifying information” on their record. The church could then disqualify that person from consideration without obtaining additional information.

Applicants would be permitted to request that the church receive the specifics of their criminal records. That way, the church would be able to consider each criminal history on a case-by-case basis, deciding whether the “disqualifying information” in question is relevant to the position at hand. Reports clarify that even after seeing an applicant’s detailed criminal history, the church would not be technically required to consider the relevance of the information to the job or volunteer position.

These factors put the Rhode Island legislation in contrast with FCRA and EEOC background check regulations. Under the FCRA, employers must typically go through a detailed regulatory process to disqualify individuals based on their criminal history, coverage indicates. This process includes notifying the candidate of the decision, providing the candidate with a free copy of the background check report, and allowing the candidate to dispute any information contained in the background check report. The EEOC has given guidance that employers should consider the relevance of a conviction to the job at hand before disqualifying a candidate from consideration. Based on the Valley Breeze assessment, if the Rhode Island bill passes, churches in the state won’t be held to those standards from the FCRA and the EEOC.


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