Ministry of Labor rule extends religious exemption

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WASHINGTON (RNS) —The US Department of Labor has released a new rule to promote the “full and equal participation” of religious groups as federal contractors.

“Religious organizations should not have to fear that the acceptance of a federal contract or subcontract will force them to give up their character or religious identity,” US Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said in a statement of December 7.

The final rule will take effect on January 8, two weeks before President Donald Trump leaves. It is the latest development in the long-standing battle over how to balance religious rights with others, especially LGBTQ rights.

The department said the new rule builds on Executive Order 11246, which dates from the Johnson administration, which requires contractors to follow affirmative action and non-discrimination requirements.

“Yet the ordinance also recognizes that religious organizations may prefer in the employment” individuals of a particular religion “so that they can maintain their religious identity and integrity,” the department statement said.

Specifies what qualifies for the exemption

The new rule, outlined in a 159-page document, aims to clarify what types of organizations can claim a religious exemption. Since the administration of George W. Bush, Department of Labor rules have followed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allows religious employers to prefer members of their own faith when it comes to to hire.

By virtue of its definition of “society, association, educational institution or religious society”, the new final rule indicates that they may or may not be related to a place of worship.

Its final wording also makes it clear that a religious organization does not need to be non-profit, but if it is for-profit, it must show “strong evidence that it has a substantial religious purpose.” For example, it would not be sufficient for an organization to include a scriptural quote in its marketing or a brief mention of religious values ​​on an “About Us” web page.

The ministry received more than 109,000 comments after the rule was proposed last year. Some of the comments responded to the Labor Department’s reference in its proposed rule to Supreme Court cases, such as Hobby Lobby, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, in which people with religious claims have come together. granted anti-discrimination protections.


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Controversial question

The Trump administration’s emphasis on religious freedom has been hailed by conservatives and questioned as discriminatory by supporters of separation of church and state and LGBTQ activists, who fear religious exemptions could deny same-sex couples access to services.

Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, called the new rule a “welcome step” because disputes sometimes arose over the scope of the exemption after then-President Barack Obama , in 2014 banned government contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ candidates and employees. .

“The new final rule asserts that religious organizations can retain their religious professional qualifications when they become federal contractors,” Carlson-Thies said, although he noted that it only applies to the small number of religious organizations that provide services to the federal government.

At the same time, Carlson-Thies said: “The new rule requires proof that an organization is religious – an employer cannot imagine a religious excuse just because they want to fire a gay or minority person. religious.

Americans united for separation of church and state opposed the rule, saying it could cause other types of discrimination.

“It is unacceptable, though not surprisingly, that the lame Trump administration expands the ability of federal contractors – who employ one-fifth of the U.S. workforce – to use decisive religious tests to hire or fire employees for jobs. jobs paid for with taxpayer money. Americans United President Rachel Laser said.

“Like so many others issued by the Trump administration, this rule puts LGBTQ workers, women, religious minorities and non-religious people at particular risk.”

Laser urged the Biden-Harris administration to “immediately begin the process of revoking this rule.”

But Carlson-Thies said the new regulations “cannot be reversed with the movement of a pen.”


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