In 2007, the Bush administration issued a memorandum stating that faith-based groups who benefit from government contracts were allowed to only hire members of their own faith. Then-Senator Obama criticized the decision, saying that taxpayers should not subsidize employment discrimination. However, President Obama’s current Justice Department has followed the same policy.

In a letter dated August 20, 2015, 130 organizations asked President Obama to order the Justice Department to reconsider the policy. The organizations stress that if the policy is left in place, it will tarnish the legacy of the President’s work to advance fairness and equal treatment under the law for all Americans.

Religious groups disagree, claiming that accommodating the religious beliefs of existing and prospective federal contractors is required under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the federal government from imposing substantial burdens on religious practices without a compelling reason. In 2007, the Bush Administration cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when World Vision received a $1.5 million federal contract to combat gang violence in Virginia, and hired only Christian employees to work on the project.

The practical result of the policy is that religious organizations are receiving federal funds are sanctioning religious discrimination. The White House has declined to comment on the letter.Similar letters were sent to the Obama administration in 2009, 2013 and 2014. In 2014, the Justice Department under President Obama agreed with the Bush Administration, stating thatfederally-funded religious organizations that combat violence against women can choose to hire only members of their own faith.

In March 2015, Catholic leaders also sought exemptions from federal rules banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity. They argued that employees who voluntarily choose to associate with a religious organization consent to the religious and moral convictions that underlie the organization’s work.

Currently it is unclear whether the Obama administration will continue to allow religious groups to hire only members of their religion when receiving government contracts. In general, religious organizations are permitted to give employment preference to members of their own religion. This exception only applies to institutions whose purpose and character are primarily religious. When considering whether an organization is a religious one, factors to consider include whether it is for-profit or nonprofit, whether its articles of organization state a religious purpose, whether  daily operations are religious, among other factors.

If an employer is not classified as a religious organization, it cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating in employment based on religion. “Religion” is defined very broadly for purposes of determining what the law covers, and includes not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are new or uncommon or not part of any formal church.

Employees and potential employees also cannot be harassed on the basis of their religion. Religious harassment could occur when employees are required or coerced to alter or adopt a religious practice or subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct based on religion that makes the work environment hostile or abusive.

If you believe you have been the victim of religious discrimination or harassment at work in violation of the law, call Micha Star Liberty, Oakland religious discrimination attorney, at 510-645-1000 or 415-896-1000. At Liberty Law, Micha Star Liberty believes that no employees should be harassed or discriminated against at work because of their religion. Call Liberty Law today to schedule a free consultation on your case.

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