Trump expands federal contractors' ability to cite religious freedom in discrimination cases

Trump expands federal contractors' ability to cite religious freedom in discrimination cases
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The Trump administration issued a directive earlier this month that critics argue will allow federal contractors to assert their right to a religious exemption from LGBT discrimination charges.

The Department of Labor directive, issued on Aug. 10, expands the circumstances under which federal contractors can claim they have a religious exemption when battling discrimination charges.

The directive addresses an executive order enacted in 1965 that blocks businesses that work with the federal government from discriminating against people on the basis of sex, gender identity, race, sexual orientation and other factors.

The new notice cites recent Supreme Court decisions, including a ruling in favor of a baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple and the 2014 Burwell v Hobby Lobby decision that certain corporations can be exempt from regulations over religious objections.

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It also cites recent executive orders by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE, including his order earlier this year directing federal agencies to respect and protect religious liberty and political speech.

Critics told BuzzFeed News that the new directive would contradict a promise Trump made when he took office last year to not to touch an executive order issued by former President Obama that banned federal contractors from engaging in LGBT discrimination.

Department of Labor and White House officials told the news outlet that the Obama-era executive order remains in place, but declined to answer questions on when the religious exemption directive could be utilized by contractors.

“The purpose of Directive 2018-03 is to ensure [the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs] guidance on the religious exemption is consistent with federal law related to religious freedom and religious accommodation, including recent U.S. Supreme Court precedents and Executive Orders, which OFCCP is obligated to follow,” a Labor Department official told BuzzFeed News.

The official noted that the executive order enacted in 1965 allows “religious organizations to make employment decisions on the basis of religion.” 

The new directive also states that it “supersedes” a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) memo on the illegality of anti-LGBT discrimination.

“The previous FAQ did not reflect recent Supreme Court decisions regarding religious freedoms,” the Department of Labor official told BuzzFeed News.

“President Trump and his Administration are working diligently to improve the lives of all Americans, including faith-based and LGBT communities,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters told BuzzFeed News. “We will continue to ensure anti-discrimination protections are in place for all Americans.”

Advocates opposing the new directive told the news site that the policy opens the door for contractors to cite religious exemptions when discriminating against LGBT employees.

“This Administration apparently recognizes — correctly, in our view — that rescinding [Obama’s 2014] executive order outright would cause a huge public outcry,” Shannon McGowan, a former lawyer in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the current head of Lambda Legal, told BuzzFeed News. “So instead, this Administration is trying to accomplish the same end through different means.”

McGowan noted that a fifth of the federal workforce is employed through federal contractors, telling the news site that the "damage that could be done here cannot be overstated."