The Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating the Biden administration’s decision to repeal a Trump administration-era rule that allowed federal contractors to discriminate in the name of religion.
The Trump rule, proposed in 2019 and enacted in January of 2021, applied a broad interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to remove important workplace protections for employees of federal contractors. Even though those employees were being paid with federal taxpayer dollars, under this rule they could have been fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or because they belonged to the “wrong” religion.
Under the Trump rule, employers could point to their religious beliefs to justify any type of discrimination under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This broad interpretation of the act, effectively allowing religious employers to opt out of any laws they disagree with based on religion, shows why FFRF opposed its passage in 1993 and has been pushing for its repeal ever since. Even while the scope of the act was being litigated, the Trump administration issued this rule (and others like it) that applied a broad, categorical interpretation, cementing religious privilege and sacrificing the rights of others.
FFRF joined a coalition of 67 organizations in urging the Biden administration to correct this misstep. Entities that accept federal funds should be required to abide by basic anti-discrimination rules — and rescinding the Trump rule moves in this direction.
However, there is still work to be done in removing taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination, but there is an exemption for faith-based organizations to discriminate based on their employees’ religious affiliation. Even under the new Biden rule, this exemption is still available to religious federal contractors. The federal government can and should get rid of this exception for federal contractors.
FFRF is also involved in a lawsuit challenging other, similar rules promulgated by the Trump administration. The Biden administration will hopefully repeal those rules soon as well, rendering a final decision in the lawsuit unnecessary. Even then, the new rules will be imperfect and subject to change yet again by a future administration.
Congress should put this issue to rest by passing the Do No Harm Act and taking other necessary steps to ensure that taxpayers are not forced to fund discrimination.