Nearly 60 groups are pressing the Obama administration to put an end to a Bush-era policy that allowed federally-funded faith-based groups to hire only fellow believers.
In a letter sent Thursday, the 58 groups – which include the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Human Rights Campaign – asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., to direct the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to review and ultimately withdraw a 2007 memorandum that they say "threatens crucial religious freedom protections."
"The OLC Memo's interpretation that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 ("RFRA") provides for a blanket override of statutory nondiscrimination provisions is erroneous and threatens core civil rights and religious freedom protections," wrote the groups, many of which are also members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD).
"We accordingly request that the Obama Administration publicly announce its intention to review the OLC Memo, and that at the end of that review, withdraw the OLC Memo and expressly disavow its erroneous interpretation of RFRA, the most significant free exercise protection of the post-Smith era," they concluded.
The hiring policy of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has been a source of controversy since Bush established the office in 2001 and Obama had vowed on the presidential campaign trail to reverse the hiring policy so that groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate based on religion.
"As someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state," Obama said last July in a speech about expanding Bush's office of faith-based initiatives. "If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can't discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion."
This past February, however, the Obama administration decided to continue allowing federally-funded religious groups to consider an applicant's religion when hiring – at least, for the time being.
Before a final decision on hiring guidelines is made, the Bush-era hiring policy was to first undergo a legal review.
In the meantime, until a better solution can be found, Obama's new and expanded faith-based office was to deal with complaints against faith-based groups receiving federal funding on a case-to-case basis.
However, as the White House has yet to give any indication on when a final decision might be expected, the 58 groups decided to step up its campaign to end what they view as federally-funded religious discrimination.
"The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was enacted to protect religion and those who wish to freely exercise it," said the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, which signed Thursday's letter along with other religious, education, civil rights, labor and health organizations. "Unfortunately, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo instead turned RFRA into an enabler of religious discrimination."
In continuing, Gaddy said, "I join my colleagues in calling upon Attorney General Holder to ensure that religion is never used as a means for an organization to implement discriminatory hiring decisions.
"Today, the battle to protect religious freedom is hard enough without the government, which should be defending the Constitution, making it more difficult. I look forward to the day when this harmful and constitutionally suspect memo is rescinded," the interfaith leader concluded.
Other faith-based organizations among the 58 signers include United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.