Jun 11, 2014

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder and the Obama administration should plug a legal loophole that allows “faith-based” groups to accept taxpayer funding to pay for social services yet still discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff, 90 organizations say.

Americans United joined an unprecedented coalition of more than seven dozen groups asking the Department of Justice to address exemptions for faith-based entities that receive federal funds. The loophole stems from the administration of President George W. Bush and was issued in a 2007 memo from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). According to that memo, faith-based groups do not have to comply with certain non-discrimination provisions even though they are funded by the government.

The memo, according to the coalition, misinterprets the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to permit unlawful religion-based discrimination by publicly funded faith groups.

Although the memo has been in place for years, it is particularly relevant now because the Administration just recently announced that it is using it to override the non-discrimination provision in  the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which Congress adopted just last year.

“After significant debate, Congress passed a bill that barred organizations from engaging in employment discrimination with VAWA funds,” the letter states. “But, because the OLC Memo remains administration policy, the explicit intent of Congress is being ignored, and the administration is granting exemptions from this non-discrimination provision to religious organizations that wish to use religion as a criterion when hiring employees using taxpayer dollars.” Asserted AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett, “The OLC Memo undermines VAWA’s protections for women. It’s time for the Obama administration to make sure women are protected no matter where they work.”Americans United and its allies submitted the letter June 10.

The letter’s other signatories include the American Association of University Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Committee, Hindu American Foundation, Human Rights Campaign, Muslim Advocates, Interfaith Alliance, the Council for Secular Humanism, Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP in addition to an array of civil liberties watchdogs, women’s rights groups and progressive faith-based organizations.