By Bob Allen
American Baptist Home Mission Societies and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty are among 130 religious, education, civil rights, labor, LGBT, women’s and health organizations asking President Obama to review a Bush-era legal opinion allowing faith-based organizations accepting taxpayer funds to ignore laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion.
An unprecedented coalition that also includes Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Interfaith Alliance and the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church sent a letter Aug. 20 to order a review of what they call a “flawed” legal analysis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law making it harder for the government to interfere with a person’s free exercise of religion passed by Congress in 1993.
The letter refers to a 2007 memo concerning whether World Vision, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that hires only Christians, was entitled to a $1.5 million grant to work with at-risk youth as part of an initiative to curb gang-related violence in northern Virginia neighborhoods bordering the nation’s capital.
The 25-page memo by John Elwood, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department from 2005 until 2009, concluded that RFRA is “reasonably construed” to exempt World Vision from the religious non-discrimination provision of federal law.
Signers of the letter — some of them members of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion that worked to pass RFRA as a remedy after the Supreme Court curtailed free exercise protections under the First Amendment in the 1990 decision Employment Division v. Smith — called that a “broad and erroneous interpretation” of the law. They said the interpretation “has far-reaching consequences” such as potentially allowing government contractors to deny those very services required by the funding agreement.
Leaving such an “erroneous and dangerous interpretation” of RFRA in place, the letter said, would “tarnish the legacy” of President Obama’s work to advance fairness and equal rights for all Americans.
“Religious discrimination is always wrong, but it’s even more troubling when it is funded with taxpayer dollars,” Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a news release. “President Obama vowed in 2008 to end discrimination in the faith-based initiative. It’s time for him to fulfill that promise.”