WASHINGTON (DPA) - A new proposal by the US Department of Labour has sparked concern that certain employers with religious convictions could discriminate against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employees.
The Trump administration says it is seeking to clarify regulations and offer maximum protections for religious beliefs.
The rule is expected to be formally published on Thursday (Aug 15) and would allow government contractors, such as educational programmes, to make hiring and firing decisions based on their religious beliefs.
"The Administration's licence to discriminate is cruel, blatantly bigoted and downright dangerous," US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "This hateful rule would greenlight open discrimination against tens of millions of Americans in the workplace."
"Bigotry has no place in our nation," the top Democrat added.
While the Department of Labour says the rule would not allow for discrimination against legally protected classes, such as race and disability, the concern is that discrimination against LGBT individuals would still go ahead.
"Today's proposed rule helps to ensure the civil rights of religious employers are protected," said acting Secretary of Labour Patrick Pizzella.
"Once again, the Trump administration is shamefully working to license taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement, vowing to fight the rule in court.
Leading advocacy group Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said the proposal "would rip massive holes in existing protections" for LGBT individuals. Some of those protections came into effect under Obama administration rules.
Common law in the US, which relies heavily on court precedent, in recent times has seen a few cases leaning towards religious freedom over anti-discrimination laws.
In 2018 a Colorado baker was allowed to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, while a for-profit company was also permitted to refuse to provide contraception as part of its health care because its owners objected on religious grounds.
US President Donald Trump has also effectively placed a ban on transgender people joining the military, while allowing discrimination at homeless shelters and at medical service providers.
The proposal is open for public comment until the middle of next month.