Aug. 14 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Labor proposed a new rule Wednesday that would allow federal contractors that "exercise religion" to exempt themselves from accusations of bias in their hiring practices.
The 46-page rule was filed Wednesday and will be posted to the Federal Register Thursday.
The proposal is intended to help employers of nonprofit "religion-exercising" organizations and "closely-held" companies with religious beliefs make hiring decisions that align with their religious tenets and beliefs -- "without fear of sanction."
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled years ago that Hobby Lobby, a craft chain with conservative ownership, could refuse to cover employee contraception. The high court decision meant for-profit closely-held companies can act within their religion principles. The rule change supports the idea that such companies can not be excluded from the religious exemption to federal mandate.
"[The] rule helps to ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected," acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella said in a statement. "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."
The department said the rule still discourages bias on the basis of race, sex and other protected bases -- but civil rights advocates argue it gives contractors a new legal shield to discriminate.
"Nearly one-quarter of employees in the United States work for an employer that has a contract with the federal government," the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted. "This rule seeks to undermine our civil rights protections and encourages discrimination in the workplace -- and we will work to stop it.
This is taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion."
The new rule will be open to public comment for 60 days on the Federal Register.