Written by Don Byrd

A notice posted by the Department of Labor indicates proposed new regulations will be issued as early as December 2018 regarding exemptions for religious organizations receiving federal contracts. The updated rules follow guidance released by the DOL in August instructing personnel processing requests for exemption from employment nondiscrimination laws to take into account recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Specifically, Directive 2018-03 names the opinions in Trinity Lutheran Church, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and Hobby Lobby as potentially relevant to the enforcement of laws  barring “federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, or status as a protected veteran.” None of those cases involved employment discrimination claims against religious organizations for workers hired with federal funds, but all three courts sided with religious objectors in disputes over compliance with state or federal laws.

It sounds at first glance like a protection of religious liberty to expand such exemptions, but when it comes to federal funds, the exact opposite is true. Protecting taxpayer dollars from being used to discriminate for religious reasons is an important means or furthering the cause of religious liberty for everyone. When religious organizations accept federal money, they should expect federal regulations to follow. 

The DOL is expected to release proposed regulations, which would seek to codify the August directive with specific rules, by the end of the year, followed by a required a public comment period. Stay tuned.