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Biden Admin Proposes Change to Trump-Era Religious Exemption Rule

U.S. Department of Labor Building in DC
Via Shutterstock

"[The rule] was a bright green light for discrimination in the name of religion in federally funded contracting."

@wgacooper

The U.S. Department of Labor announced on Monday a proposal to rescind a Trump-era rule that greatly expanded religious exemption from anti-discrimination laws for federal contractors.

Then-President Donald Trump enacted the rule in the last days of his presidency. The expansion included employers who "hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose." Previously, the rule applied to a more select number of cases.

Officials noted in a press release that rescinding the rule would take the department's policy back to how it was used in the Obama and Bush administrations.

"The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs' proposed rescission would protect against discrimination and safeguard principles of religious freedom. With this proposal, OFCCP would simply return to our policy and practice of considering the facts of each case and applying Title VII principles and case law and other applicable law," said Office of Federal Contract Compliance programs director Jenny Yang in the release.

Trump's administration said the policy served as a way for religious organizations to fully participate in the federal contractor system, according to Reuters. However, LGBTQ+ groups had warned that it would lead to discrimination.

"The proposed rescission would also promote economy and efficiency in federal procurement by preventing the exclusion of qualified and talented employees on the basis of protected characteristics," Yang told the news wire. "This ensures that taxpayer funds are not used to discriminate."

The LGBTQ+ rights group Lambda Legal was one of the groups that opposed the Trump administration rule change, according to senior counsel Jenny Pizer.

"It was a bright green light for discrimination in the name of religion in federally funded contracting, and that's inconsistent with important national policy going back decades," Pizer told The Advocate. "We passionately opposed that rule change and strongly support the current proposal to revert back to the prior policy."

However, Pizer added that the policy itself needs to be clarified further because the exemption itself still exists. Courts, she said, have given different accounts of what those exemptions could be -- especially when it comes to exemptions that could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.

The idea behind the exemption comes from the government wanting to allow faith-based organizations to be able to hire those of the same faith. Pizer believes that an issue arises when that faith is used to mistreat others.

"The prior policy is less clear than it could be that federal dollars should not subsidize discrimination," Pizer explained. "Religious organizations that are defined by specific criteria may be able to prefer people of the same faith but not when doing so means unlawful discrimination."

@wgacooper
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