Obama pressed to reverse legal opinion on religious freedom
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Obama pressed to reverse legal opinion on religious freedom

(Washington Jewish Week via JTA) — More than a dozen Jewish organizations signed on to a letter urging President Barack Obama to instruct the Justice Department to reverse a legal opinion that allows religious organizations to avoid religious nondiscrimination laws in hiring.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah and B’nai B’rith International were among the 130 signatories of the letter sent Aug. 20 by civil rights, education and secular advocacy groups.

In the letter, the groups ask the president to instruct the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to “review and reconsider” a 2007 memorandum that has been used to promote “taxpayer-funded discrimination plain and simple,” as the American Civil Liberties Union put it.

The memorandum concludes that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, religious organizations seeking federal grants could not be compelled to follow religious nondiscrimination laws pertaining to hiring.

“The OLC Memo reaches the erroneous and dangerous conclusion that the religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) provides a blanket override of a statutory non-discrimination provision,” the letter reads in its opening.

Under the RFRA, which was introduced in the House by now-Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and in the Senate by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except when the government can demonstrate that the burden is a “furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The signatories contend that the Office of Legal Counsel memo has been applied without any regard for the “government’s compelling interest in prohibiting [hiring] discrimination.”

Other Jewish groups that signed the letter are Bend the Arc, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Keshet, Jewish Women International, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism, Women of Reform Judaism and Nehirim.

Reminding Obama that he had pledged to end federally funded hiring discrimination, the signers warned that leaving the opinion in place would tarnish his legacy.