New York, NY – This past week, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams issued a statement opposing a proposed Department of Labor Rule that would expand the ability of employers to claim religious exemption “and so excuse any potential discriminatory conduct as necessary in keeping with the practice of their faith.”
The U. S. Department of Labor proposal “Implementing Legal Requirements Regarding the Equal Opportunity Clause’s Religious Exemption (RIN 1250-AA09),” was announced in August. At the time, acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella said, “[The] proposed rule helps ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected. As people of faith with deeply held religious beliefs are making decisions on whether to participate in federal contracting, they deserve clear understanding of their obligations and protections under the law.”
Williams said, “I find this line the most concerning part of the proposal: “‘OFCCP [Office of Federal Compliance Programs] proposes to…clarify that the religious exemption allows religious contractors not only to prefer in employment individuals who share their religion, but also to condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor.”‘
“By this wording, a religious contractor who sincerely believes his or her faith dictates women should not work outside the home could refuse to employ any women whatsoever with no consequence. Another who considers interracial or same-sex relationships to be forbidden by their faith could fire employees involved in such relationships.”
And on Thursday, September 19, in a letter, 110 faith leaders and 17 national religious organizations opposed the Department of Labor’s use of religious freedom as an excuse for workplace discrimination.
They stated, “Religion should never be used as a weapon to exclude and discriminate. A person’s religious beliefs are a personal choice that should not be forced upon others. This proposed rule wrongfully allows government contractors to take tenets of someone’s faith into account when making employment and benefit decisions, and application of these tenets does not have to be uniform. For example, a government contractor could fire or refuse to interview anyone, however qualified, who does not regularly attend religious services or practices a different religion.”
The letter went on to say, “Freedom of religion is a right that we deeply cherish. It allows us to practice our faith freely and without interference from the federal government. But our rights are in fact threatened by this proposed rule. One in five Americans works for a federal contractor. If contractors decide to claim a religious affiliation, up to 1 in 5 Americans could be fired because of their differing religious beliefs, or any number of reasons. This proposed rule would serve only to wreak havoc on our moral and legal obligations to oppose discrimination.”
Lawsuits by those who claim their religious rights have been violated by restrictive anti-discrimination laws have made headlines in recent years. Recently, the Supreme Court of Arizona ruled in favor of two Christian artists who said that being forced to make wedding invitations for same-sex couples would violate their religious beliefs. A 2014 ruling in a lawsuit brought by Hobby Lobby resulted in a court decision allowing closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a regulation its owners religiously object to, striking down a mandate under the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to cover certain contraceptives for its female employees.
In both cases, the rights of LGBTQ persons and women have been severely restricted. Human Rights Watch broadcasts a message of caution on its website, issuing a recommendation to various factions of the government to “Ensure that existing conscience protections are not misused to excuse or justify discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other classifications.”
The ACLU said, “The Department of Labor just proposed a rule that aims to let government contractors fire workers who are LGBTQ, or who are pregnant and unmarried, based on the employers’ religious views…This is tax-payer funded discrimination. Period…This bill seeks to undermine our civil rights protections and encourages discrimination in the workplace.”