The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs published a final rule regarding religious exemptions to federal anti-discrimination laws for certain contractors. Under the new OFCCP guidance, a rule that once applied to nonprofit religious organizations that protected them from nondiscrimination laws, has now been expanded in scope to include for-profit businesses. The rule would allow these contractors to discriminate against those who offend their religious beliefs. Experts quickly criticized the expansion.
"This action by the administration is blatantly offensive, unnecessary and simply unacceptable, which is further compounded by the fact that they are attempting to jam it through a lame-duck session," Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.
"This new rule uses religion to create an essentially limitless exemption allowing taxpayer-funded contractors to impose their religious beliefs on their employees without regard to the resulting harms, such as unfair job terms, invasive proselytizing and other harassment that make job settings unbearable for workers targeted on religious grounds," Jennifer Pizer, director of law and policy for Lambda Legal, said in a statement.
In the past, such religious exemptions applied to only traditional groups, but the new rule expands the practice. While discrimination on race, gender, and sexual orientation remains illegal, the new ruling permits certain groups to hire only followers of their own religion. This exemption has been criticized as giving cover to what would otherwise be illegal conduct by employers and considered a disqualifier for federal contracts.
"This rule effectively allows almost any federal contractor to claim a right to fire a person, deny health benefits or take other forms of discriminatory action for marrying a same-sex partner or coming out as transgender, or who the employer or would-be employer discovers is transgender, for living in accordance with their gender identity," Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia, claimed the new rule was enacted to support groups forced to "abandon their religious character or identity." Scalia is the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative known for his anti-LGBTQ+ views and opinions.
Pizer brushed aside the claims by Scalia and others that the Trump administration is merely seeking to protect the constitutional religious rights of employers.
"It is hard to overstate the harm that the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is visiting on LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities, and others with the sledgehammer it is taking to federal nondiscrimination protections," she said.
The Trump administration has some 40 days left in office. The decision is expected to be overturned by Biden's administration.