Trump Labor Department allows religion as excuse for firing
New discriminatory rule yet another Trump attempt to saddle incoming Biden administration with policies tough to reverse. | AP

WASHINGTON—Brushing aside numerous objections from unions and others the Trump Labor Department issued a final rule letting more groups taking federal funds—from parochial schools to food banks—discriminate against workers who are of a different faith. It’s yet another gift from the Republican Oval Office occupant to his radical religious right constituency.

The department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance admits federal law bans contractors—entities taking federal cash—from discrimination in general and requires them to follow affirmative action rules, too.

But, citing court rulings, it will now, starting Jan. 8, allow those groups to prefer “employment of individuals of a particular religion,” in other words, their own. And it expands the range of groups that “preferment” exemption covers.

The critics said DOL’s rule is way too broad in allowing groups to call themselves “religious” and thus discriminate against workers. It would now include for-profit businesses, for example, several said. All they’d have to do is call themselves “religious.”

DOL’s “proposal could lead businesses to feign religiosity solely for the purpose of cloaking discriminatory activity,” one union objected.

Another “union raised concerns the rule crosses into territory proscribed by the” U.S. constitutional ban on government “establishment of religion by authorizing federal contractors to advance their religious preferences and practices through the receipt of federal funds and the performance of public functions.”

Though DOL did not say so, the new rule, unveiled Dec. 7, is yet another Trump gift to the religious right, which claims the right to discriminate against people—present or prospective workers—who do not share its faith or toe that faith’s line.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in blasting the rule, was explicit about its impact. Americans United CEO Rachel Laser urged President-elect Joe Biden to revoke Trump’s discrimination rule once Biden takes office.

“The constitutional right to religious freedom promises everyone the right to live their lives secure that the government will treat them equally, no matter what their belief system,” Laser said. “The new rule, however, turns this core American value on its head and puts countless peoples’ jobs at risk because they do not share the religious views or meet the religious code of conduct of a government contractor.”

“Like so many others issued by the Trump administration, this rule particularly puts at risk workers who are LGBTQ, women, religious minorities, and non-religious people.”

DOL admitted the rule, effective Jan. 8, is part of Trump’s term-long deregulation push. That four-year Trump campaign aims to benefit corporate interests at the expense of everyone else, especially workers.

The new DOL rule says “religious corporations, associations, educational institutions or societies” can discriminate against workers of other faiths, especially in hiring and firing. That could cover everyone from private hospitals to nursing homes, religious schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, and even the Knights of Columbus.

The net result is that more institutions and organizations would get the leeway to hire and fire based on faith, the rule says, in convoluted language:

“This rule is intended to correct any misperception that religious organizations are disfavored in government contracting by setting forth appropriate protections for their autonomy to hire employees who will further their religious missions, thereby providing clarity that may expand the eligible pool of federal contractors and subcontractors,” it reads.

“Religious organizations should not have to fear that acceptance of a federal contract or subcontract will require them to abandon their religious character or identity,” said Trump Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia.

The unions, civil rights groups, a group of U.S. senators, and even some religious organizations said the aim of the Trump religious exemption rule is flat-out discrimination.

Some commenters also criticized DOL for dropping the requirement that a contractor be “primarily religious,” or “engaged primarily in carrying out that religious purpose” to be able to hire and fire workers of other faiths.

“The government cannot use religious exemptions as a pretext to permit discrimination against or harm others,” the objecting senators wrote DOL.

“One religious organization commented that, in line with its commitment to religious freedom, it opposed granting government contracts to organizations that, in its words, discriminate against qualified individuals based on their practices and beliefs.”

Another religious group told DOL that barring people from taxpayer-funded jobs “based on their faith violates principles of equality and meritocracy.” A third cited the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state.

The Trump Labor Department’s proposed rule, issued a year ago, also let only non-profit organizations—however broadly it defined them—discriminate. The final rule dropped that restriction, too.

That means for-profit hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices that get government contracts to care for patients discriminate, too, as long as they had religious connections.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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