I'm working with a small religious non-profit on a committee to fill a position for what is essentially the second in command*. The role involves working with people in our community, both publicly and privately. At our last meeting, the leader* of our non-profit, who is kind of the "first among equals" for this committee, said words to this effect:
One thing we've heard from the people we work with is that there isn't enough diversity among our staff, especially compared to where we were a few years ago. We need to hire more diversity. We just hired one straight white man [points to himself] and I don't want us to hire another.
I really felt from his tone, and previous discussions this leader has had, that this was his way of telling us "do not hire a straight white man". I am aware that it is illegal to discriminate race, sex, and several other criteria, so this raised some red flags in my mind. Nonetheless, several other committee members also said they didn't want to hire straight white men. Regrettably, I didn't have the heart to speak up at the time to voice my concerns.
Shortly after his speech, we reviewed some résumés and, although we didn't immediately disqualify any straight white men (really, just white men since sexuality wasn't something we could know from that), they were only given a token discussion. The leader and one other person even explicitly said that one such candidate was their last choice due to him being a white man.
I have no problem hiring someone who is not a white man (in fact, one of the best people we have had in this role previously was a Latina woman), and I do know that some of the people we work with have said they wanted more diversity. But I'm concerned about the legal implications of this explicit instruction, and more general ethical concerns.
What can I do to change this attitude, yet still address diversity concerns? I'm worried that if I simply point out "discriminating in this way is illegal", the result will be "sure, we'll consider all equally", but there will still be implicit biases.
If it matters, this is a religious-affiliated organization, but there are no religious restrictions preventing anyone of a certain gender or ethnicity from filling the role (unlike, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church having a religious restriction for a woman to serve as a priest). Aside from the people we work with being more comfortable talking to someone who matches their gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, there isn't anything that would prevent a straight white man from fulfilling the duties of the position. I am unsure if "clients would be more comfortable" is enough of a reason to allow this.
* I'm being vague about the terms for leadership because it would make clear which religious group we are part of, and I don't want that to be the focus. I'd appreciate more general advice applicable for any religious group in the United States.
Update: When I brought this up again with the committee and the leader, it was pointed out that the organization was unlikely to get into legal trouble because federal discrimination laws generally don't apply to religious institutions (as upheld in the Supreme Court by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). I tried to refocus my argument to more of an ethical one, pointing out that as a religious institution people expected us to be the best we could and avoid any appearance of impropriety, but didn't make a lot of headway. The general attitude was that the ends justified the means in promoting diversity, and if that meant not considering white men, so be it.
Ultimately, the issue wound up being moot. Our best candidates in terms of prior experience and such were not white men, but rather ones who were women or non-whites. However, my concern about bias that would be potentially illegal in other fields wound up being one of several issues that led me to step down from my position within the religious non-profit.