Coalition Calls on Obama to End Taxpayer-Funded Religious Discrimination

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Coalition Calls on Obama to End Taxpayer-Funded Religious Discrimination

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A letter signed by more than 130 religious and secular groups calls on the Obama Administration to rescind a Bush-era legal memo the groups claim advances taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.

A coalition of more than 130 organizations representing religious, education, civil rights, and labor organizations called on President Obama on Thursday to review a Bush-era legal memo the groups claim is used to justify taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.

The request came in a letter signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United, Human Rights Campaign, Equality Federation, NAACP, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and hundreds of others.

A June 29, 2007 memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) reaches the “erroneous and dangerous conclusion” that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) provides a “blanket override of a statutory non-discrimination provision,” such as Title VII and others, according to the letter.

The letter cites several examples in which religious conservatives are trying to use the OLC letter to avoid complying with federal civil rights laws. The OLC memo is, according to advocates, being used to permit certain religiously affiliated organizations that receive Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) funds to use religion as a criterion when hiring employees using taxpayer dollars, despite VAWA’s clear nondiscrimination requirement.

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Advocates also claim religious organizations are citing the OLC memo as support for their claims that RFRA should broadly exempt religiously affiliated government contractors from complying with an executive order barring such employees from discriminating against LGBT workers.

Advocates additionally point to the way religious conservatives use the OLC memo to claim that the government should create a blanket exemption that allows religious objectors to refuse to provide any reproductive health services or referrals while still receiving federal grant money.

Religious conservatives most recently made this argument in the fight over providing medical care for unaccompanied immigrant children who experienced sexual abuse.

“Contrary to the conclusion in the OLC Memo, RFRA is not a tool to categorically override statutory protections against religious hiring discrimination,” the letter states. “Nor does it create an absolute free exercise right—without regard to countervailing compelling interests, as required by RFRA—to receive government grants without complying with applicable regulations that protect taxpayers and participants in federally funded programs.”

The letter calls on President Obama to legal direct the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to review and withdraw the memo.

The fight over the scope of RFRA is not likely to end soon. Last year the Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby that RFRA could be used by some secular for-profit companies to avoid complying with the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act.

Religious conservatives hope to build on that ruling as they continue their resistance to this summer’s Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, arguing that RFRA insulates business owners from having to serve to LGBT couples at their businesses.