Holder urged to drop religious hiring exemption

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jewish groups are urging the Obama administration to withdraw a Bush administration legal memo allowing religious groups an exemption from employment discrimination laws.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, 11 Jewish groups and dozens of other religious and civil rights organizations said the 2007 Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel memo used an "erroneous" interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The memo argued that the 1993 law allowed religious organizations to claim that it would be a "substantial burden" to hire employees outside of its religious faith, and the government needed to show a "compelling interest" why the religious organization should have to hire outside its faith.

Many of the organizations that signed the Holder letter backed the passage of RFRA because it was intended as legislation that would place the burden on the government to prove there was a reason why a particular law that impinged on someone’s free exercise of religion was necessary — and thus would permit, for instance, Jewish prisoners to receive kosher food.

The memo "stands as one of the most notable examples of the Bush Administration’s attempt to impose a constitutionally questionable and unwise policy — RFRA should not be interpreted or employed as a tool for broadly overriding statutory protections against religious discrimination or to create a broad free exercise right to receive government grants without complying with applicable regulations that protect taxpayers," the letter said.

Signing onto the letter are the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, National Council of Jewish Women, Na’amat USA, Rabbinical Assembly, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said he hopes the letter will "spark a sense of urgency within the Justice Department and the administration to modify existing law and establish necessary constitutional and anti-discrimination safeguards for the faith-based initiative.”

The Obama administration has not taken a position on whether religious groups receiving federal funds should be allowed to take religion into account when hiring, saying decisions will be handled on a case-by-case-basis.

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