by Fred Kuhr
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the Washington Blade has led to the release of emails showing Trump Administration officials confused over the former president’s religious freedom directive.
The FOIA lawsuit was filed in September 2020 with the help of attorneys from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. The suit sought communications inside the United States Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) regarding a rule change dealing with so-called religious freedom.
The 2018 rule change was in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in which the Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding on religious grounds.
The Trump directive was meant to uphold “religious freedom” in light of an Obama era executive order banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination among federal contractors. As reported by the Blade in August 2018, the Labor Department guidance purported to “incorporate recent developments in the law regarding religion-exercising organizations and individuals.”
The directive, however, led to much confusion in Washington. In fact, A 2018 Blade story on the religious freedom directive was circulated in an email chain among officials within the OFCC. One of the top officials in that office, Christopher Seely, recognized the predictable impact the directive would have by writing in response to the article: “It is not surprising that the LGBT community sees the directive as targeting them,” the Blade reported.
Now that the Blade has received troves of internal emails, reporter Chris Johnson’s latest reporting states, “All in all, the instructions seemed aimed at allowing religiously affiliated non-profits to discriminate against LGBTQ workers despite Obama’s executive order prohibiting such bias in employment. Previously, religious non-profits, including religious schools and universities, were required to abide by the executive order and received no religious exemption.”
Labor Department officials appear to have anticipated the confusion and flurry of questions they would receive over the 2018 religious freedom directive, according to the Blade. “One email chain details discussions on a proposed email to stakeholders for when the guidance would be issued. The actual talking points are redacted in the email obtained by the Blade.”
Other email chains show officials discussing potential FOIA requests, seeking the number of religious freedom exemptions sought under the Obama executive order, and at times commenting unguardedly on the situation.
For example, the Blade reported, “Another top OFFCP official, John Haymaker, chimes in with a response uncharacteristically glib for government officials, but revealing of the basic understanding of the fairness of adhering to non-discrimination principles: ‘Well, I would hope that religious organizations would be better-behaved than most at least in public.’”
According to the Blade, the Labor Department continues to produce emails to the newspaper as a result of the ongoing litigation.
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