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90 Liberal Groups Renew Call For End To “Damaging” Bush-Era Religious Freedom Ruling

The groups say recent limits on the Violence Against Women Act’s nondiscrimination provision show that the “harm is more than speculative” from the 2007 decision.

United States Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington on May 5. Gary Cameron / Reuters / Reuters

WASHINGTON — A group of 90 progressive and liberal organizations on Tuesday renewed their call on the Obama administration to withdraw a Bush-era ruling they say opens the door to government-funded religious discrimination.

Signed by prominent groups like the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Human Rights Campaign, NAACP, and National Organization for Women, the letter to Attorney General Eric Holder takes issue with a 2007 Bush DOJ memorandum that, the groups say, provides “a blanket override of statutory non-discrimination provisions” to religious organizations seeking government grants.

The groups point to a statement issued by the Department of Justice earlier this year about the new nondiscrimination provision for grant recipients in the Violence Against Women Act. The FAQ memorandum specifically cites the Bush memo and announces that exemptions from the religious nondiscrimination requirement in VAWA will be given to faith-based organizations able to provide certain certifications to the Justice Department.

In the letter sent to Holder Tuesday, the groups write:

[T]he OLC (Office of Legal Counsel) Memo wrongly asserts that RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) is “reasonably construed” to require that a federal agency categorically exempt a religious organization from an explicit federal non-discrimination provision tied to a grant program. Although the OLC Memo’s conclusion is focused on one Justice Department program, its overly-broad and erroneous interpretation of RFRA has been cited by other federal agencies and extended to other programs and grants, including, most recently,VAWA. The guidance in the OLC Memo is not justified under applicable legal standards and threatens to tilt policy toward an unwarranted end that damages civil rights and religious liberty.

Or, in other other words, the groups argue that the Bush-era memo gives religious groups seeking government funds too much power to be exempted from nondiscrimination rules that are a part of those grant programs.

The groups call on Holder to announce a review of the 2007 memorandum and, “at the end of that review, withdraw the OLC Memo and expressly disavow its erroneous interpretation of RFRA.”

The letter, signed by 90 “religious, education, civil rights, labor, LGBT, women’s, and health organizations,” echoes a letter sent to Holder by nearly 60 organizations in 2009 and a more broad letter by a smaller group sent to the White House in 2013.

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Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at chris.geidner@buzzfeed.com.
 
 
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