Nonprofits Urge Change in RFRA Exemptions for Religious Groups

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), a coalition of a hundred and thirty nonprofit organizations, is urging President Obama to reconsider a Bush administration-era policy that allows federal grantees to claim exemption from non-discrimination rules under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In a letter dated August 20, the coalition asked that a 2007 memo issued by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel concerning exemptions granted to faith-based organizations under the RFRA be reviewed and reconsidered. Written in support of a claim by World Vision — which had a $1.5 million grant from the government blocked by the Office of Justice Programs because the charity requires its employees to be Christian — the memo has since been cited by other faith-based groups looking for an exemption from federal non-discrimination rules. In one case, five faith-based groups argued that they shouldn’t have to provide emergency contraception to unaccompanied immigrant children who have suffered sexual abuse.

The letter argues that the 2007 memo is being interpreted too broadly. "RFRA was intended to provide protection for free exercise rights, applying strict scrutiny, on a case-by-case basis, to federal laws that substantially burden religious exercise," the letter states. "RFRA was not intended to create blanket exemptions to laws that protect against discrimination." Signatories of the letter include religious organizations such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the United Methodist Church, as well as groups advocating for the separation of church and state and civil, labor, LGBTQ, women's rights, and reproductive rights.

"If left in place," the letter cautions Obama, "the [policy] will tarnish the legacy of your work to advance fairness and equal treatment under the law for all Americans…."