130 Major Organizations Urge Obama Administration to Rescind Discriminatory Bush-Era Memo

by Stephen Peters

Memo has dangerous and erroneous conclusions with far-reaching and discriminatory consequences

WASHINGTON – Today, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization joined a total of 130 major religious, education, civil rights, labor, LGBT, women’s, and health organizations in a letter to President Obama urging him to review and reconsider a memo from the Office of Legal Counsel that has been used to permit taxpayer funded discrimination. The letter warns that the 2007 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.”

“This Bush-era policy is based on faulty legal assumptions and is being used to put the government in the business of funding discrimination,” said HRC Government Affairs Director David Stacy. “By rescinding this flawed memo, President Obama can make clear that taxpayer money cannot be used for unjust discrimination – period. The President has an unprecedented legacy of advancing fairness and equality for the LGBT community, and with the limited time he has remaining in office, we urge him to solidify that legacy by taking action on this critically important issue.”

A portion of the letter states, “The OLC Memo’s broad and erroneous interpretation of RFRA has far-reaching consequences. For example, although the OLC Memo’s conclusion is focused on one grantee in one Justice Department program, the Department has implemented it as a categorical exemption—that does not even require an individualized inquiry—to all religious hiring discrimination bans, most recently in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The Department of Labor has also cited the OLC Memo to adopt a categorical prohibition. Moreover, some have cited the OLC Memo in arguing that RFRA should broadly exempt religiously affiliated contractors from the nondiscrimination requirements in Executive Order 11246, including those you added just last year that bar government contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. And, some are trying to extend its reach beyond the context of hiring:  Several grantees and contractors have cited the OLC Memo to support their arguments that the government should create a blanket exemption that would allow them to refuse to provide services or referrals required under those funding agreements, specifically in the context of medical care for unaccompanied immigrant children who have suffered sexual abuse.”

Included in the HRC 2015 Blueprint for Positive Change, a series of actions the administration can take to change the lives of LGBT Americans for the better, HRC continues to consider the issue a top priority.

In a speech in Zanesville, OH, in July 2008, President Obama said, “Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles.”

He added, “First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.”

In the letter, the 130 organizations led by Americans United For Separation of Church and State urge the President to keep this promise by reviewing and reconsidering the OLC memo.

The full letter can be read here.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. HRC envisions a world where LGBT people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.


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