Labor Dept. proposes granting businesses with federal contracts 'religious exemption' in hiring

The Department of Labor proposed a rule Wednesday allowing “religion-exercising organizations” with federal contracts to raise religious exemptions if accused of bias in their hiring practices. 

The Labor Department said the proposal, which is set to officially be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, is intended to help companies “make employment decisions consistent with their sincerely held religious tenets and beliefs without fear of sanction by the federal government.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which regulates federal anti-discrimination requirements for businesses and other organizations that work with the government, said the rule applies to both religious companies as well as “closely held” groups acting in accordance with their owners’ religious beliefs and is based on past laws and court rulings detailing protections for certain groups.

“Today’s proposed rule helps to ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected,” acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella said in a statement. “As people of faith with deeply held religious beliefs are making decisions on whether to participate in federal contracting, they deserve clear understanding of their obligations and protections under the law.”

The proposal will be open for public comments until Sept. 16.

Advocacy groups have long warned that such protections intend to provide cover for groups with discriminatory hiring practices.

“The Department of Labor just proposed a rule that aims to let government contractors fire workers who are LGBTQ, or who are pregnant and unmarried, based on the employers’ religious views,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted after the proposal was announced. “This is taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion. Period.” 

“This rule seeks to undermine our civil rights protections and encourages discrimination in the workplace — and we will work to stop it,” the group added.

The ACLU is currently involved in a litany of lawsuits against the Trump administration over several policies it argues are discriminatory.

The Labor Department maintained in its statement that its rule “reaffirms employers’ obligations not to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or other protected bases and does not exempt or excuse a contractor from complying with any other requirements.”

"In no way does today’s announcement by the Department of Labor undermine the President’s promise and commitment to the LGBTQ community. The proposed rule will continue to responsibly protect religious freedom and members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination," the White House added in a statement to The Hill.

Workplace protections for LGBT employees have been thrust into the spotlight in the Trump administration. The Justice Department argued in court in 2017 that sexual discrimination protections in the workplace do not extend to sexual orientation and wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court in 2018 the protections also do not extend to transgender people.

The Supreme Court will hear three cases in October to determine whether aspects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“OFCCP is consistently looking for ways to bring clarity and certainty to federal contractors, and this proposal falls squarely within that effort. The rulemaking process allows the public opportunity to comment on the proposal and impact any potential final rule,” said OFCCP Director Craig Leen.

--Updated at 2:45 p.m.