Groups Push to End Hiring Bias Legalized for Religious Charities

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

Nearly 60 groups concerned with civil rights, labor, health and education urged Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday to renounce a Bush-era memo allowing religious charities that receive federal grant money to discriminate in hiring.

The groups signing the letter include the Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the NAACP. It asks the Justice Department to withdraw a legal finding that they say stands as "one of the most notable examples of the Bush administration's attempt to impose a constitutionally questionable and unwise policy."

The intersection of church and state is posing a political challenge for the Obama administration, which is trying to balance pressure from traditional Democratic constituencies with a desire to find common ground on social issues. Earlier this year, President Obama issued an executive order reinforcing the need for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, but he left the religious hiring issue unaddressed.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department and the White House counsel had no immediate comment on the request.

The groups, which include a who's who of religious denominations and civil rights advocates, want the president to fulfill a campaign pledge last year in which Obama said that he would curtail federal funding to religious organizations that proselytize and that hire only people who are members of the same faith.

The groups have taken aim at a 2007 memo by the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which carved out an exemption under employment discrimination law that allowed the Christian charity WorldVision to receive a $1.5 million grant to prevent juvenile delinquency.

"The guidance in the OLC memo is not justified under applicable legal standards and threatens to tilt policy toward an unwarranted end that would damage civil rights and religious liberty," the coalition's letter said.

Representatives for WorldVision, a Washington state group that supports aid efforts in 100 countries, argue that interference in the group's hiring will damage its identity and mission. They, too, have been making their case to the White House as a member of a presidential advisory panel.

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