When you go to an interview for a government-funded job, you don’t expect to be turned away because of your religion. But that’s exactly what happened to Alan Yorker, a psychologist who applied for a government-funded job at a children’s home in Georgia.

Yorker was well-qualified, so officials at the children’s home asked him to come in for an interview. But when he arrived, they found out he was Jewish and cut the interview short. They told Yorker they don’t hire Jews. Even though the job was funded by the government, the children’s home discriminated against potential employees on the basis of religion. Fortunately, Yorker sued under state law and favorably settled his case.

But in August, the Trump administration proposed changing federal policy so that more people like Yorker will face employment discrimination not just in Georgia, but throughout the nation.

In the latest attack on working Americans, President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor issued a proposed rule that would vastly expand a religious exemption to allow government contractors to discriminate in hiring. And as usual, the administration justified its discriminatory policy by citing “religious freedom.”

The result: taxpayer-funded federal contractors, including for-profit companies, could claim a religious right to fire people because they are LGBTQ, they are single moms, they are the “wrong” religion, or they don’t go to church often enough. Imagine a sign on the government contractor’s office that says “Jews, Sikhs, Catholics, and Latter-day Saints need not apply.” That could happen under the new rules.

Americans United quickly condemned the policy.

“We believe no one should be disqualified from a taxpayer-funded job because he or she is the ‘wrong’ religion, does not follow the same religious ‘tenets’ as the employer or cannot pass an employer’s religious litmus test,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said in a statement.

Rachel Laser quote graphic

“Today’s action tarnishes our country’s proud history of preventing employment discrimination with taxpayer dollars,” Laser added. “As early as 1941, President Roosevelt issued the first antidiscrimination requirements for federal contractors. In subsequent executive orders, Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Ken­nedy, Johnson and Obama have all expanded these protections, taking America down the higher path of equality and inclusion.”

To understand why the new regulations are such a problem, it’s useful to know a little about how government contractors work and how they’re supposed to treat their employees.

Government contractors get taxpayer money to provide a service for the government – like transitional services for veterans or disaster management assistance after a hurricane. According to a 2017 study, more than one-fifth of the entire U.S. workforce is employed by government contractors – so millions of Americans depend on these employers to treat them fairly. 

As early as 1941, President Frank­lin D. Roosevelt issued the first anti-discrimination requirements for federal contractors. In executive orders, several presidents over seven decades expanded these protections, increasing equality and inclusion for workers. But President George W. Bush introduced a rule allowing religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations to prefer co-religionists – in other words, to only hire people who are the same religion. Americans United has fought to dial back Bush’s harmful rule since its inception.

Trump’s new rule would go much further than Bush ever did. Under the existing rule, religiously affiliated nonprofits could prefer co-religionists, but they couldn’t use the religious exemption to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex or other protected classes. Trump’s rule would change all that: It invites contractors to claim a religious exemption that will allow them to fire or refuse to hire someone who is LGBTQ, a person who uses birth control or has a baby outside of marriage, or someone who is the “wrong” religion or doesn’t practice their religion the “right” way. 

Before, the religious exemption only applied to religiously affiliated nonprofits. But under Trump’s new rule, it would apply to for-profit businesses as well. As long as a corporation claims to hold religious beliefs, it can take taxpayer dollars and fire someone who doesn’t meet its religious test. The rule also could cover federal contractors that provide services such as assistance for refugee and immigrant children, emergency and transitional residential assistance for veterans and disaster management.

This is not religious freedom. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. It guarantees us the right to believe – or not – as we see fit, but it cannot be used to justify harming or discriminating against others. And it’s even more important to ensure religion is not being used to discriminate when taxpayer money is involved. When religious organizations get government money, they should play by the same rules as everybody else. Our nation has a long history of protecting the American people from taxpayer-funded discrimination, and we shouldn’t turn the clock back now. The government should never use our taxpayer dollars to force us to live by someone else’s religion in order to get or keep a government-funded job. 

Officials at the Department of Labor seemed determined to ram the policy through and gave the public only 30 days to respond to the proposed rule. (The normal procedure is 60 days.) Some time after the department reviews the comments, it could issue a final rule.

Despite the short deadline, Americans United’s Public Policy Department submitted comments criticizing the rules. Americans United also launched a petition to oppose the rule and joined allies in gathering nearly 100,000 comments from people who oppose employment discrimination. The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), a diverse group of national organizations chaired by AU that opposes government-funded religious discrimination, formally opposed the proposed rule in a Sept. 16 letter.

“The proposed rule would enlarge the pool of entities that qualify for the exemption – extending it even to for-profit corporations,” observed CARD in its letter. “It would also widen the scope of the exemption, subjecting countless additional workers to employment discrimination in the name of religion. Government-­funded employers should not be allowed to impose a religious test on their applicants or employees. No one should be disqualified from a job with a federal contractor because they are the ‘wrong’ religion. The administration should repeal the existing exemption, not expand it through new regulations.”

AU has vowed to keep up the fight and work to block the misguided and dangerous policy.

“We call on the Am­erican people to make it clear that America was founded on the principle of religious freedom – a tradition and ideal that remains central to who we are as a country,” said Laser. “This means that the government cannot use our taxpayer dollars to force any of us to live by the tenets and teachings of someone else’s religion in order to get or keep a government-funded job.”          

We call on the Am­erican people to make it clear that America was founded on the principle of religious freedom – a tradition and ideal that remains central to who we are as a country. This means that the government cannot use our taxpayer dollars to force any of us to live by the tenets and teachings of someone else’s religion in order to get or keep a government-funded job.

~ Rachel Laser