A widening coalition of critics is urging the Obama administration to
drop the practice of permitting religious groups to hire and fire based on
a person’s faith when they receive federal money, saying Obama
is reneging on a promise he made in 2008 to change that policy.
Ninety organizations wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder after
discovering a new Department of Justice document that details rules on
prohibiting discrimination by grant recipients as part of the reauthorization
of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. The 11-page FAQ
document, issued in April and citing a 2007 DOJ memo issued by the Bush
administration, says faith-based organizations “may prefer co-religionists for
employees in programs funded by covered grants” if they meet certain criteria.
Signatories to the June 10 letter said the Bush-era memo from the
Office of Legal Counsel should be withdrawn because it “threatens core
civil rights and religious freedom protections” in the Justice Department and
other federal agencies. They say the memo undermines new nondiscrimination
language in the Violence Against Women Act.
The department’s latest wording “means the government is endorsing
discrimination by federally funded faith-based organizations,” said Madihha
Ahussain, an attorney with Muslim Advocates, a signatory to the letter.
Obama originally campaigned against the Bush-era discrimination
policy, vowing to change it once he was in the White House. “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,” Obama said in 2008.
For more than a decade, members of the informal Coalition Against
Religious Discrimination have urged Congress and the George W. Bush and Obama administrations
to prevent discriminatory hiring based on religion. With the new
reauthorization of the anti-violence law, a number of additional
groups—including more than a dozen women’s and LGBT organizations—have signed
onto the latest request.
“This letter stands for the principle that at the very least we should
not have a systematic structure in place that provides for a categorical exemption
of religious organizations,” said Richard Foltin, director of national and
legislative affairs for the American Jewish Committee, a longtime member of the
coalition that signed the letter to Holder.
Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for
Separation of Church and State, another signatory, called the FAQ’s language
“particularly shocking in the instance of the VAWA (Violence Against Women
Act) because Congress actively debated this nondiscrimination provision
and knowingly decided to apply the provision to religious organizations.”
Other signatories include a range of groups of faith and no faith,
such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Hindu American
Foundation, Interfaith Alliance, Methodist Federation for Social Action,
Secular Coalition for America, Sikh Council on Religion and Education, and
Unitarian Universalist Association.
Representatives of several groups that signed the letter said they
have not received a response from the Justice Department. Obama administration
officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Administration
officials have long said the discrimination issue would be determined on a
case-by-case basis. When Obama revamped Bush’s Office of Faith-based and
Neighborhood Partnerships in 2010, he did not address whether grant
recipients could hire and fire based on religion.
Administration officials have long said those issues would be
determined on a case-by-case basis. “Our effort is to continue to hold the
administration to this,” Foltin said of Obama’s campaign pledge.