Labor Dept. proposes new rule to protect religious liberty of federal contractors

The Frances Perkins Building, the Department of Labor headquarters, in Washington, D.C. | (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ed Brown)

The U.S. Department of Labor on Wednesday released a proposed rule to “clarify” the rules on religious exemptions for groups that contract with the federal government.

In an announcement, the Labor Department explained that the proposed rule, if implemented, would allow religious organizations contracted with the federal government to determine their own employment decisions.

The Department cited recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, statutes, and executive orders to justify the proposed rule, which will begin public comment on Thursday.

Cited decisions from the Supreme Court included Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the high court ruled that a Colorado baker was wrongfully punished for refusing to make a same-sex wedding cake on religious grounds.

Another cited decision was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, in which the high court ruled that a closely-held family business did not have to adhere to a federal mandate on coverage of birth control and abortion inducing drugs.

“Today’s proposed rule helps to ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected,” said Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella.

“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.”

At issue was an amended version of Executive Order 11246, an Obama-era directive that added sexual orientation and gender identity to its list of anti-discrimination rules that disqualified religious organizations from retaining or seeking federal contracts because they did not comply with progressive views on LGBT issues.

“Among other changes, this proposal is intended to make clear that the Executive Order 11246 religious exemption covers not just churches but employers that are organized for a religious purpose, hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose, and engage in exercise of religion consistent with, and in furtherance of, a religious purpose,” explained a copy of the proposed rule made available by the Labor Department.

“It is also intended to make clear that religious employers can condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets without sanction by the federal government, provided that they do not discriminate based on other protected bases.”

Luke Goodrich of the religious liberty law firm Becket expressed support for the new proposed rule on his Twitter account, posting a series of tweets on Wednesday.

“They STILL prohibit employment discrimination based on all of the same grounds. They STILL require federal contractors to make their services available to ALL without discrimination,” tweeted Goodrich.

“The regs simply follow the text of Title VII by clarifying that hiring ‘individuals of a particular religion’ means religious groups can hire individuals who adhere to the group’s observances and practices … This allows religious organizations to continue serving the needy without compromising their sincere religious beliefs — which is a win for religious freedom.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, was critical of the proposal, stating in a series of posts on Twitter that the new rule was “taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion.”

“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,” tweeted the ACLU.

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

Follow Michael Gryboski on Twitter or Facebook

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