Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Freeing contractors to hire fellow believers

First Amendment | The Trump administration proposes a rule extending religious exemptions to labor laws
by Steve West
Posted 8/20/19, 04:18 pm

The U.S. Department of Labor proposed a new rule last week that aims to protect the right of religious government contractors to hire employees that share their faith. Though that right has existed for decades, the new regulation clarifies it applies to more than just churches.

The rule covers “employers that are organized for a religious purpose, hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose, and engage in exercise of religion consistent with, and in furtherance of, a religious purpose.” Those employers still cannot discriminate because of race, color, sex, and other attributes in hiring, but they are exempt from punishment when discriminating based on religion.

Greg Baylor, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told me the new rule has an important though limited application because most religious organizations receive government grants and are not contractors. But the government does contract with as many as nine private religious organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Relief, to help resettle refugees, according to a 2018 report by the Center for Immigration Studies.

Baylor said ambiguity about the religious exemption has created problems for faith-based entities. “Because of the lack of clarity as to the religious exemption, organizations self-select out of the competition for government contracts,” he said. “That is, they don’t even try to become government contractors.”

The Labor Department cited such reluctance as part of the reason for the new rule. It also noted the proposal is consistent with several executive orders signed by President Donald Trump and with U.S. Supreme Court decisions protecting the religious freedoms of a Christian baker, Lutheran schools, and retailer Hobby Lobby.

“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,” acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella said.

The public has until Sept. 16 to comment on the new rule.

YouTube/Hadassah Carter YouTube/Hadassah Carter Hadassah Carter

Real estate board says religion out

A Virginia real estate agent is contesting a real estate board complaint that she violated fair housing statutes by including Bible verses and religious quotes on her website and in her email signature.

In a complaint filed Wednesday in a Virginia Circuit Court in Richmond, Hadassah Carter, a licensed real estate broker, claims the Virginia Real Estate Board effectively prevented her from practicing real estate by prohibiting her from using any religious language in her practice. Carter, a Christian, includes the familiar words of John 3:16 in a personal statement on her business website. Her email signature also reads, “For Faith and Freedom, Jesus loves you, and with God all things are possible.”

The real estate board filed a complaint against Carter in August 2017, saying her use of “words or statements associated with Christianity” indicated “a preference or limitation based on religion” and was in violation of the Virginia Fair Housing Act.

American Center for Law and Justice counsel Matthew Clark, who represents Carter, told me the case has ramifications beyond real estate agents: “Any number of state licensure boards, from nursing associations to state bars … could be impacted if this action by the Realtors’ board is upheld. If simply saying something about your faith is read as discriminatory, then that will have an impact across the country.”

Clark pointed to a 2011 decision, Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., in which the Supreme Court specifically held that laws about commercial speech cannot discriminate based on viewpoint. —S.W.

Facebook/Bethel Christian Academy Facebook/Bethel Christian Academy Bethel Christian Academy

Christian school excluded from voucher program

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys in June filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Baltimore-area Christian school after the state of Maryland terminated its participation in a state-sponsored voucher program, claiming its Biblical views on sex and marriage constitute discrimination.

Maryland’s BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) school voucher program allowed many low-income students to attend Bethel Christian Academy in the small town of Savage. When the state found out Bethel asks students to refrain from sexual conduct—even while admitting students regardless of their sexual orientation—it booted the school from the program and required it to pay back more than $100,000 from the two years it participated.

“While Bethel fully complied with the program’s requirements, Maryland let its hostility toward Bethel’s religious views, not the law, decide the school’s eligibility,” said ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Maryland’s families deserve better; that’s why we’re asking the court to address the state’s hostility.” —S.W.

Right of refusal

A judge in New Jersey has temporarily blocked enforcement of a law allowing physician-assisted suicide because of religious liberty concerns. Yosef Glassman, an Orthodox Jew and a physician who is a geriatric specialist, challenged the law in court, claiming New Jersey’s Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act violates his free exercise of religion by requiring him to refer patients to another doctor who will help them end their lives. The law, signed in April by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, allows terminally ill patients who have a prognosis of six months or fewer to acquire drugs to end their lives.

The order, issued by state Superior Court Judge Paul Innes, blocks the law until a hearing on Glassman’s challenge on Oct. 23. Murphy said the state would fight the lawsuit. The governor describes himself as a practicing Catholic but said he considers assisted suicide a personal decision and thinks the law respects people’s freedom and humanity, the Catholic News Agency reported. The Catholic Church opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia because it violates the sanctity of human life. —S.W.

Steve West

Steve is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.

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