US businesses with federal government contracts would be allowed not to hire LGBT+ candidates on religious grounds, under a proposed rule announced on Wednesday by the US Department of Labor.
The policy change would state that government contractors, including universities, hospitals and corporations, can claim religious exemptions in employment decisions, if they can produce evidence of “religious purpose” in their organisation.
The policy, overseen by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) which sets anti-discrimination rules for businesses working with the government, would weaken an LGBT+ nondiscrimination order by former US President Barack Obama.
“Today’s proposed rule helps to ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected,” said acting US Secretary of Labor, Patrick Pizzella, in a statement.
“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.”
About one in four workers is employed by a government contractor, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Opponents expressed concern that the rule amounted to tax-funded discrimination against vulnerable populations, including single mothers and LGBT+ Americans.
They also criticised a potentially loose interpretation of what constitutes a religious contractor, saying that was both deliberate and dangerous.
Government contractors would be able to [c]ite evidence of religious purpose through founding documents, articles of incorporation, or other means under the new policy.
“This proposal guts the executive order without having to take the step of removing it,” Ian Thompson, a senior legislative representative for the ACLU told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“This is about religiously motivated discrimination.”
With no federal protections and inconsistent state policies on LGBT+ workers, workplace discrimination against that population has undergone fierce debate in the United States in recent years.
The US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in October about whether LGBT+ employees of private business are protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on sex, race, colour, national origin or religious affiliation.
President Donald Trump’s administration has argued that protections based on sex do not extend to LGBT+ people.
The proposed rule draws on Supreme Court rulings favouring employers or businesses on religious freedom grounds, including one in which a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Thompson likened the administration’s latest proposal to an ongoing assault on the LGBT+ community.
The Department of Labor held that religious exemptions had long been included in OFCCP’s regulations.
“The proposed regulation merely clarifies the regulation’s definition of ‘religion’ and related terms to confirm that ‘religion’ includes not merely belief, but also “all aspects of religious observance and practice,” it said in an email.