Jewish Groups Urge President to Review Opinion on Religious Freedom Law


Religious leaders from around the country band together to oppose a federal regulation that they feel endorses discrimination.

More than a dozen Jewish organizations joined with civil rights, education and secular advocacy groups in calling on President Barack Obama to instruct the Justice Department to reverse a legal opinion pertaining to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and Hadassah were among 130 signatories of a letter sent Aug. 20 to the president. In it, they urged the president to instruct the Office of Legal Counsel to “review and reconsider” a memorandum that has been used to promote “taxpayer-funded discrimination plain and simple,” as the American Civil Liberties Union put it.
In June 2007, the OLC, housed in the Justice Department, issued a memorandum that concluded 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,” reads the opening of the letter.
Under the RFRA, which was introduced in the House by now-Sen. Chuck 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 OLC memo has been applied without any regard for the “government’s compelling interest in prohibiting [hiring] discrimination.”
Reminding Obama that he had pledged to end federally funded hiring discrimination, the organizations warned that leaving the OLC opinion in place would tarnish the president’s legacy.
Among the Jewish groups affixed to the letter: the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Keshet, Jewish Women International, National Council of Jewish Women, the Rabbinical Assembly, Union for Reform Judaism, Women of Reform Judaism, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Hadassah and Nehirim.


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