Religious hiring exemption under fire

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Jewish groups are urging the Obama administration to withdraw a Bush administration legal memo allowing religious groups an exemption from employment discrimination laws.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, 11 Jewish groups and dozens of other religious and civil rights organizations said the 2007 Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel memo used an “erroneous” interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The memo argued that the 1993 law allowed religious organizations to claim that it would be a “substantial burden” to hire employees outside of its religious faith, and the government needed to show a “compelling interest” why the religious organization should have to hire outside its faith.

The RFRA was intended as legislation that would place the burden on the government to prove there was a reason why a particular law that impinged on someone’s free exercise of religion was necessary — and thus would permit, for instance, Jewish prisoners to receive kosher food.

The Obama administration has not taken a position on whether religious groups receiving federal funds should be allowed to take religion into account when hiring, saying decisions will be handled on a case-by-case-basis. — jta