There will soon be one less Trump administration regulation on the books. Yesterday, President Joe Biden’s Department of Labor announced plans to rescind a Trump rule that allowed federal contractors to discriminate against workers and job applicants in the name of religion. Americans United applauds the Biden administration for taking this crucial step: We’ve been leading the fight with our allies against Trump’s rule since the day it was announced. It was even one of our top ten priorities for the Biden administration in our Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom.
Why was Trump’s Labor rule so harmful? It made it easier for federal contractors, which employ more than one-fifth of the entire U.S. workforce, to discriminate against LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and the nonreligious.
Here’s how Trump’s rule worked: Starting in the 1940s, the federal government prohibited defense contractors from discriminating in employment. Many presidents have since expanded these protections, increasing equality and inclusion for workers at all government contractors. But Trump’s regulations took a George W. Bush-era religious exemption to the ban on employment discrimination and vastly expanded it. Bush’s policy allowed religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations to prefer co-religionists – in other words, to only hire people who are the same religion.
But then the Trump administration stretched the exemption to apply to contractors that are only nominally religious and even to for-profit corporations. The Trump rule also asserted employers could discriminate in employment beyond religion, including based on other protected characteristics such as sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Contractors could claim the right to fire someone who is LGBTQ or uses birth control, or someone who is the “wrong” religion or doesn’t practice the religion the “right” way. As long as a corporation claims to hold religious beliefs, it could take taxpayer dollars and fire someone who doesn’t meet its religious test.
That brings us to now. Yesterday, the Biden administration released a proposal to rescind the Trump rule, which would return the Department of Labor’s policy back to what it was under Presidents Bush and Barack Obama. The proposal clarifies that a religiously affiliated contractor may employ individuals of a particular religion, but the contractor can’t discriminate against other protected classes. Biden’s Labor Department explained that the Trump administration mischaracterized federal case law in order to expand the religious exemption. The Biden rule would limit exemptions only to federal contractors whose “purpose and character are primarily religious.”
Americans United applauds the Biden administration for taking this step toward ending discrimination in the name of religion. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value that guarantees us the right to believe – or not – 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.
As the Biden administration wrote in their rationale for changing the Trump rule, making these changes furthers “equity and fairness,” prevents “the arbitrary exclusion of qualified and talented employees,” and furthers the principle that “taxpayer funds are not used to discriminate.”
While the administration can continue to do more to restore and protect religious freedom for workers, these are good first steps. We’ll continue to push for Biden’s administration to finalize these rules and take more positive actions to restore and protect religious freedom.