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DOL proposes revisions to Obama-era LGBT workplace protections

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Employers in California and around the country that do business with the federal government were prohibited from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity by President Barack Obama in 2014. The move was lauded by LGBT advocacy groups, but the rules will be relaxed for religious organizations if a recent Department of Labor proposal is implemented. The proposal, which was published in the Federal Register on Aug. 15, would allow companies with a religious purpose and groups that identify as religious to base their employment decisions on whether or not a worker would accept and adhere to faith-based tenets.

This proposal has drawn widespread condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU says the religious exemption would use taxpayer money to discriminate against LGBT workers in the name of religion. According to the advocacy group, the seemingly narrow rule change could affect millions of American workers. Almost one in four workers in the United States is employed by a company that has at least one contract with the federal government.

However, the DOL proposal is unlikely to have come as a complete surprise. In an August 2018 directive, the agency told Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs staff to consider recent Supreme Court rulings on LGBT issues when assessing complaints lodged against federal contractors. The DOL defended its proposal by suggesting that the relaxed rules could encourage more companies to do business with the government.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not specifically address sexual orientation or gender identity, and the resulting legal ambiguity may make gay and transgender workers who have been treated unfairly reluctant to step forward. Attorneys in California with experience in this area could put those fears to rest by assuring LGBT workers that the Golden State has some of the most progressive workplace discrimination laws in the country.