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President Obama: Restore Civil Rights Protections!

Dena Sher,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 23, 2011

Seventy years ago this week, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all federal agencies to “include in all defense contracts hereafter negotiated by them a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” This was the first action taken by the government to promote equal opportunity in the workplace for all Americans, and such fair employment protections were later expanded to include all government contracts and have been strengthened by nearly every president since.

President George W. Bush, however, rolled back one of these longstanding protections. In 2002, he signed an executive order that exempted religious organizations that contract with the government from the nondiscrimination requirements. Now, the government says these organizations can hire or fire for government-funded jobs based on an employee’s religion. President Bush justified this executive order as removing the barrier to funding faith-based initiatives.

This means that religious organizations that contract with the government can, when hiring for government-funded jobs, ask not only what faith tradition you follow (or if you even have one), but what your specific religious beliefs are. It also goes beyond just questions about religion. If you are pregnant, these religious government contractors could ask if you are married. They could ask you if your spouse got his or her previous marriage annulled in accordance with religious practices. And they could ask what you think about homosexuality.

How are these questions relevant to providing goods and services under a contract to the government? The answer: they’re not. Qualified candidates for a government-funded job should not be told they won’t be hired because of their answers to one of these questions. It’s way past time to end government-funded hiring discrimination.

Yet, this civil rights rollback is surprisingly still in place. President Obama has done nothing to restore the civil rights protections that had been in place from 1941 until 2002. This, despite a clear promise he made on the campaign trail in 2008, to reverse the policies permitting hiring discrimination by religious groups for government-funded jobs.

On June 21, the ACLU, along with 51 other organizations, sent a letter to the president asking him to restore this key civil rights protection. Later that same day, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) hosted a briefing with members of Congress and key civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, African American Ministers In Action, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to honor an important civil rights milestone on fair employment protections and to bring much needed attention to a regression in these protections.

In our letter, we urged President Obama to honor the 70th anniversary of the civil rights milestone by restoring the protections President Bush took away.

Ask President Obama to do away with this unjust policy. Tax-funded hiring discrimination should never be acceptable in the American workplace.

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