Since its first day in office, the Trump-Pence administration has targeted our most vulnerable — asylum seekers and children, hospital patients and students. Through regulations, executive orders, and the megaphone of Trump’s Twitter account, the Trump-Pence administration has worked to systematically dismantle the civil rights safety net so many of us rely on. Time and again, this administration manipulated our institutions, which were designed to protect our rights and welfare, into tools to advance their own discriminatory agenda.
This time, Trump-Pence are taking aim at our nation’s workers — carving up longstanding federal protections and inviting companies to discriminate.
A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking from the Department of Labor published last month would add an unprecedented and expansive religious exemption to the regulations implementing Executive Order 11,246. This executive order prohibits discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. This executive order and its implementing regulations affect the vast majority of workers employed by a federal contractor or subcontractor — 20 percent of our nation’s workforce.
The Trump proposal would allow federal contractors and subcontractors who are otherwise bound by Executive Order 11,246 to claim “religious belief” as a defense to a charge of employment discrimination. The exemption is designed so broadly that almost any for-profit business that contracts with the government could claim a religious exemption in order to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities. This proposal would undercut explicit, uniform safeguards — empowering organizations to ignore historic protections and robbing a quarter of our nation’s workers of their peace of mind about their own protections at work.
Under this proposal, a for-profit contractor could terminate an employee who uses birth control, an employee who is pregnant and unmarried, or a worker who marries his same-sex partner. Contractors could also argue that the exemption allows them to refuse to hire LGBTQ people, deny same-sex couples the health benefits they offer married opposite-sex couples, or refuse to allow transgender employees to dress and use facilities consistent with their gender identity.
These changes aren’t just bad policy — they’re also legally specious. To support the adoption of a license to discriminate with taxpayer dollars, the Labor Department relies on a seriously flawed interpretation of case law which results in a disingenuous representation of what the law actually requires.
The administration mischaracterizes three major Supreme Court decisions — Masterpiece Cakeshop, Trinity Lutheran, and Hobby Lobby — and ignores the limiting language of each (the administration is also encouraging SCOTUS to allow antigay bigotry in a case the high court will hear next month). In interpreting each of these cases, the Labor Department privileges the interests of religious entities over virtually all other considerations. This is dangerously unfaithful to the law decided by the courts, the statutes designed by Congress, and the executive orders signed by some of our greatest presidents.
This country recognized long ago that discrimination and federal dollars don’t mix. We must now recognize that the Trump administration will do everything in its power — including distort the law — to make sure they do. Join us in telling the Trump administration that our workers deserve protection and that discrimination is not OK on our watch.
Sarah Warbelow is the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign.