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Labor Chief Stirs Culture Wars, Avoids Virus Issues in Ohio Talk

Oct. 13, 2020, 12:13 AM

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia embraced religious freedom and preserving American tradition from cancel culture during a speech in Ohio that echoed Trump re-election themes without mentioning the economic crisis that’s causing record joblessness.

At an event Monday billed as a Columbus Day commemoration, Scalia praised the origins of the national holiday as a symbol of religious inclusiveness. While acknowledging the contributions of American Indians and the sins of Christopher Columbus as a slave owner, Scalia took aim at activists who have toppled multiple statues of Columbus and other historical figures this year.

He also sought to assure Whites that they aren’t inherently racist, a topic that’s become particularly relevant as President Donald Trump’s supporters include groups labeled as White supremacists, a contingent Trump wouldn’t denounce when given a chance at the presidential debate Sept. 29.

“Harboring racist views is not the shared heritage of White Americans,” Scalia said. “For many it’s quite the opposite. As Columbus Day reminds us, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, and others have had their own struggles gaining acceptance in American society. Columbus Day is a day about overcoming that.”

He delivered the remarks on the campus of Franciscan University, known as a deeply Catholic and conservative small private school in Steubenville, Ohio, a state where polls show a tight race between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Twenty-two days from the election, the labor secretary tailored his words to the divisive culture wars that some in the president’s campaign believe may propel his efforts to mount a late-stage comeback to defeat Biden, who has a firm lead over Trump in most national polls.

Contrary to his typical public remarks lately, Scalia didn’t mention the pandemic or the millions of workers who remain unemployed from the wave of business closures.

One topic on the minds of those who first celebrated Columbus Day is a “particular type of discrimination” which remains relevant today, the labor secretary said. “That is respect for people of different faiths, including Catholics’ right to live their faith while participating fully and equally in American civic life.”

He criticized Democratic senators who previously have expressed concerns about the devout Catholic faith of Trump’s nominee for U.S. Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. Earlier Monday, Republican senators tried to put Democrats on the defensive about religion during the first day of confirmation hearings for Barrett. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sidestepped religion Monday. A backlash did follow Barrett’s 2017 Circuit Court confirmation hearing when the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), suggested that the nominee’s religious “dogma” would guide her work as a judge.

Scalia seized on Feinstein’s words, connecting them to the spirit of the holiday.

“Let’s not cancel Columbus Day while some in high office are still internalizing its message of religious inclusiveness,” the labor secretary said.

Scalia himself is a Catholic whose father, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin, mentored Barrett.

Racial Bias

Scalia didn’t explicitly stump for the president’s reelection, which would be a violation of the Hatch Act, but he did use his official role as a Cabinet secretary to promote issues aligned with presidential talking points on issues such as race and U.S. heritage.

He discussed his agency’s involvement in the president’s recent executive order that bans federal contractors from conducting “divisive” trainings for their employees—a rare moment in Scalia’s speech that touched on Labor Department policy.

The executive order doesn’t forbid trainings on diversity, nondiscrimination, equal opportunity, or on “recognizing the value and worth of people of all races and creeds,” Scalia said.

“What the order does prohibit, though, is instruction in which federal contractors tell workers that because of their particular race or sex, they are racist, morally culpable, or less worthy of being heard,” he added.

To enforce that executive order, a DOL subagency announced in late September it had created telephone and email hotlines for employees to report “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”

The edict prompted outcry from both employer representatives and worker advocates. Critics contend it could outlaw necessary unconscious-bias training for workers employed by federal contractors, and others also attack the order as an attempt to activate Trump’s base before the election.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com