White House

By Bob Allen, Baptist News Global with BJC staff reports

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies are among 130 religious, education, civil rights, labor, LGBT, women’s and health organizations asking President Barack Obama to review a Bush-era legal opinion allowing faith-based organizations accepting taxpayer funds to ignore laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion.

The diverse coalition, which also includes Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Interfaith Alliance and the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, sent a letter Aug. 20 to request a review of what they call a “flawed legal analysis” of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law making it harder for the government to interfere with a person’s free exercise of religion.

According to the letter, a 2007 Department of Justice memo – which analyzed the hiring practices of one grantee in one government program – is being used by several agencies to create a categorical exemption from various non-discrimination provisions. Additionally, the letter notes that other groups are seeking to expand the memo’s influence beyond hiring to create an exemption from providing contracted-for services, or even referrals, based upon the organization’s religious beliefs.

Signers of the letter — some of them members of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion that worked to pass RFRA as a remedy after the Supreme Court curtailed free exercise protections under the First Amendment in the 1990 decision Employment Division v. Smith — called the memo a “broad and erroneous interpretation” of the law. They said the interpretation “has far-reaching consequences,” such as potentially allowing government contractors to deny those very services required by the funding agreement.

The letter asserts that RFRA was intended to be applied on a case-by-case basis, to federal laws that substantially burden religious exercise to protect free exercise rights. “RFRA was not intended to create blanket exemptions to laws that protect against discrimination,” the letter states.

Religious discrimination is “even more troubling when it is funded with taxpayer dollars,” Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a news release. “President Obama vowed in 2008 to end discrimination in the faith-based initiative. It’s time for him to fulfill that promise.”

From the September/October 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.