Acting Director Craig E. Leen of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor that is responsible for enforcing the non-discrimination policies with which federal contractors must comply, issued a “Directive” to agency staff and federal contractors on August 10, construing three recent Supreme Court decisions and two Trump Executive Orders to allow contractors to discriminate in carrying out their contracts based on their religious beliefs.
The first decision cited by Leen is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court’s June 4, 2018, ruling that reversed a lower court decision against a Denver-area baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The Supreme Court did not rule in Masterpiece Cakeshop that businesses have a general right to deny services to gay couples based on the owners’ religious beliefs, however. The Court finessed that issue, finding instead that the lower court’s ruling had to be reversed because the Court discerned evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had exhibited overt hostility to religion in its treatment of baker Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couples based on his religious objections to same-sex marriage. The evidence for this “hostility” boiled down to public statements by two commissioners, one of whom accurately summarized the legal rule that religious beliefs do not excuse a business from complying with state anti-discrimination law, and the other characterizing as “ugly” the use of religion to justify discrimination. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision for the Court emphasized that generally businesses do not enjoy a right to discriminate based on the owners’ religious beliefs, and that a “neutral forum” free of overt hostility to religion could enforce the anti-discrimination laws against a religious objector.
Kennedy’s ruling also contended that Phillips could have believed he was entitled to decline the business because, at the time, same-sex marriages were not allowed or recognized in Colorado, and that the Commission had evinced hostility to religion by dismissing charges brought by a man who was turned down by several bakers who refused his request to make cakes decorated with religiously-based anti-gay scriptural quotes and slogans. The Court’s majority apparently believed the Commission was insufficiently evenhanded in dealing with cases involving religious views.
But Leen’s directive, consistent with two Trump Executive Orders and a Memorandum issued last fall by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reorients the issue as “discrimination” against religious individuals when they are required to comply with non-discrimination requirements that conflict with their religious beliefs. “Recent court decisions have addressed the broad freedoms and anti-discrimination protections that must be afforded religion-exercising organizations and individuals under the United States Constitution and federal law,” he wrote, painting individuals and businesses who want their religious beliefs to take priority over any contrary legal obligations as “victims.”
Twisting recent Supreme Court opinions to support this assertion, Leen summarized Masterpiece Cakeshop as holding that “the government violates the Free Exercise clause when its decisions are based on hostility to religion or a religious viewpoint.” He summarized Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, In., v. Comer (2017), in which the Court held that a state could not categorically disqualify religious organizations from receiving state funds for non-religious purposes, as holding that the “government violates the Free Exercise clause when it conditions a generally available public benefit on an entity’s giving up its religious character, unless that condition withstands the strictest scrutiny.” That case involved the state’s denial of funds to a religious school for repaving its playground, based on a state constitutional provision against providing taxpayer money to religious institutions. Finally, Leen summarized the Supreme Court’s notorious Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling (2014), a 5-4 decision, as holding that “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to federal regulation of the activities of for-profit closely held corporations.” That case involved a demand by a business corporation owned by a small group of devout Catholics that they should not have to provide contraception coverage for their employees as required by regulations under the Affordable Care Act. Very few federal contractors subject to federal anti-discrimination rules, which apply only to substantial federal contracts, are “closely held corporations,” so that characterization of RFRA does not seem particularly applicable to the cases where this Directive is likely to be implicated.
Leen also cited Trump’s Executive Order 13831, which states, “The executive branch wants faith-based and community organizations, to the fullest opportunity permitted by law, to compete on a level playing field for grants, contracts, programs and other Federal funding opportunities,” and Trump’s Executive Order 13798, which says, “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. . . Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.” Sessions’ memorandum ran with these directives, asserting that the government should generally refrain from enforcing federal laws against people and businesses that have religious objections to complying with them.
The Directive instructs the OFCCP staff and notifies federal contractors that, in essence, they can discriminate in employing people or providing services under federal contracts if they are doing so based on their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court arguably opened the door to this kind of thinking in the Hobby Lobby and Trinity Lutheran cases, but it is rather a stretch to cite Masterpiece Cakeshop for this purpose, in light of Justice Kennedy’s invocation of Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, a 1968 case that held that a southern barbecue restaurant chain could not refuse to serve black customers based on the owner’s religious belief in racial segregation, as well as Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 case that held that people do not enjoy a Free Exercise right to refuse to comply with state laws of general application that are on their face neutral with respect to religion.
Writing for the Court in Employment Division, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that allowing individuals to claim exemptions from the law based on their individual religious beliefs unless the government could prove that it had a compelling interest was not required by the First Amendment. “Any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy, but that danger increases in direct proportion to the society’s diversity of religious beliefs, and its determination to coerce or suppress none of them,” he wrote. Although the Court’s holding was unanimous in that case, four justices concurred in an opinion arguing that Scalia had gone too far in contending, for a majority of the Court, that there was no need for the government to show there was an important government interest that justified burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion – in that case, a Native American who was denied unemployment benefits when he was fired after he flunked the employer’s drug test due to his ritual use of peyote.
Enforcing religiously-neutral anti-discrimination rules is not “hostility to religion” by the government. It is undertaken to prevent categorical discrimination against applicants and employees or those seeking government-funded benefits or services, because of their personal characteristics, such as race, national origin, sex or sexual orientation. Notably, the federal laws and regulations that OFCCP is supposed to enforce do not apply to government contractors that are religious corporations or associations or religious educational institutions, “with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.”
This “Directive” is not a regulation adopted in accordance with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, and Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby, responding to concerns raised by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion, denied that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could be invoked as a defense in an employment discrimination case. How this will all play out if OFCCP refuses to hold contractors to their non-discrimination requirements in situations involving LGBT victims of religiously-motivated discrimination is yet to be seen, but the portents are not good in light of Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, where, if confirmed, he would join the conservative majority in place of Justice Kennedy. It is also worth noting that in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, implied that the Court should reconsider its holding in Employment Division v. Smith.