When you go to a job 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.
Alan was well-qualified, so 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 Alan they didn’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, Alan sued under state law and favorably settled his case.
But this week, the Trump administration changed federal policy so that more people like Alan 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 Trump 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 someone because they are LGBTQ, they are a single mom, 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.”
Let’s start from the beginning by explaining 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, nearly one-fourth 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 Roosevelt issued the first antidiscrimination requirements for federal contractors. In executive orders, Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Obama have all 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 long as a corporation claims to hold religious beliefs, it can take taxpayer dollars and fire someone who doesn’t meet its religious test.
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.
Trump’s Department of Labor has given the public 30 days to respond to this proposed rule before they finalize it and allow it to enter into effect, which would allow more people to face discrimination like Alan Yorker. We at AU will continue to denounce this policy, and we urge you to join us in taking action by signing our rapid response petition rejecting this attempt at taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.