A new Labor Department proposal would allow religious federal contractors to hire and fire people based on their beliefs.
The proposal, announced Wednesday, would let religious organizations make employment decisions “consistent with their sincerely held religious tenets and beliefs.”
The Labor Department said employers would not be able to “discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or other protected bases.”
“Today’s proposed rule helps to ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected,” acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella said. “As people of faith with deeply held religious beliefs making decisions on whether to participate in federal contracting, they deserve clear understanding of their obligations and protections under the law.”
Progressive advocacy groups said the proposal would allow religious organizations to discriminate and still receive federal contracts.
“[A] government contractor could cite religion to refuse to hire a single mom or someone who is LGBTQ,” said Rachel Laser, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “And now any for-profit corporation that claims it’s religious can take taxpayer dollars and fire someone who is a religious minority – so fire me, for example, because I’m Jewish.”
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The Anti-Defamation League criticized the proposal in a tweet Thursday.
“‘No Jews, No Gays, need apply’ is utterly unacceptable & the proposal must be withdrawn,” the group wrote.
About one in four workers is employed by a government contractor, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Opponents expressed concern that the rule amounted to tax-funded discrimination against vulnerable populations, including single mothers and LGBTQ Americans.
They also criticized a potentially loose interpretation of what constitutes a religious contractor, saying that was both deliberate and dangerous.
Government contractors would be able to site evidence of religious purpose through founding documents, articles of incorporation or other means under the new policy.
"This proposal guts the executive order without having to take the step of removing it," Ian Thompson, a senior legislative representative for the ACLU told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This is about religiously motivated discrimination."
With no federal protections and inconsistent state policies on LGBTQ workers, workplace discrimination against that population has undergone fierce debate in the United States in recent years.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in October about whether LGBTQ employees of private business are protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin or religious affiliation.
The Trump administration has argued that protections based on sex do not extend to LGBTQ people.
The proposed rule draws on Supreme Court rulings favoring employers or businesses on religious freedom grounds, including one in which a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Thompson likened the administration's latest proposal to an ongoing assault on the LGBTQ community.
The Department of Labor held that religious exemptions had long been included in OFCCP's regulations.
"The proposed regulation merely clarifies the regulation’s definition of 'religion' and related terms to confirm that 'religion' includes not merely belief, but also “all aspects of religious observance and practice," it said in an email.