News and analysis
August 21, 2015

Nonprofits Ask Obama to Reverse Rule Allowing Religious Groups to Discriminate

In a letter sent today, a group of 130 nonprofits urged President Obama to rescind an administration policy they say gives blanket protection for discrimination by religious groups that receive federal money.

The organizations asked the president to reconsider a 2007 memo from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. The memo allowed federal grantees to claim that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act they were exempt from nondiscrimination rules.

If the policy is left in place, it "will tarnish the legacy of your work to advance fairness and equal treatment under the law for all Americans," says the letter, which was signed by a broad slate of civil-rights, education, health, labor, religious, and women’s organizations and by groups that promote equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Signatories included the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, the National Organization for Women, and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society.

Christian Employees

The Bush-era memorandum was written in response to a claim by World Vision, which was the recipient of a $1.5-million juvenile-justice grant from the Department of Justice. The department’s Office of Justice Programs blocked the grant because World Vision required the people it hired to be Christian. World Vision then claimed an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Office of Legal Counsel agreed with the Christian group, writing in the memo that "placing such a condition on receipt of a grant would substantially burden World Vision’s religious exercise."

In their letter sent today, the nonprofits argue that the memo is being used on too broad a basis. The religious freedom law, they wrote, "is not a tool to categorically override statutory protections against religious hiring discrimination."

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.