Religious groups press Obama to let them keep the faith when hiring

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Religious groups ratcheted up pressure on President Barack Obama last week, seeking clarification of U.S. policies on employee hiring by organizations that receive government funds.

Seventy prominent religious leaders signed a letter to the president Sept. 10 urging him to continue letting faith-based organizations that receive government support hire people who share the religious beliefs of the organization.

The appeal came in response to an Aug. 20 letter from more than 100 civil rights and women’s health advocacy organizations that pushed Obama to reverse the government’s prior support for allowing religious groups to make hiring decisions on the basis of faith.

The government’s earlier support for religious groups came in the form of a 2007 memo from the Justice Department’s  Office of Legal Counsel, applying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to a group that received a federal grant.

The advocacy groups argued that OCR’s 2007 memo incorrectly applied RFRA to government funding policies. 

“If left in place,” the Aug. 20 letter says, “the OLC Memo will tarnish the legacy of your work to advance fairness and equal treatment under the law for all Americans.”

Religious leaders countered in their Sept. 10 missive that hiring employees of shared religious beliefs does not constitute unlawful discrimination, and that Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964 explicitly protects religious institutions.  That letter was signed by well-known church leaders, including Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Baltimore’s Catholic Archbishop, the Most Rev. William Lori.

Repealing the memo, which outlines how the federal government applies RFRA, would make it more difficult for religious organizations to work with the government toward common goals, the Sept. 10 letter argues.

“This right is not somehow waived or otherwise lost simply by the receipt of government funds,” the religious leaders wrote. “The government’s compelling interest is to uphold the religious freedom rights of these organizations and to fairly interpret the protections provided by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The Religious Freedom act became law in 1993, during the Clinton administration.

A formal response will be issued “in due course,” a White House official told Religion News Service. As a presidential candidate, Obama had vowed to repeal the 2007 policy interpretation if elected president.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis