Sessions Issues Sweeping Religious Liberty Guidance to Federal Agencies

Oct 08, 2017, 00:48

The memo itself does not specifically reference gay or transgender people, but given that its instructions are about how Department of Justice agencies should take religious freedom issues in mind when enforcing laws, contracting, and distributing grants, there was an immediate concern from LGBT activist groups and allies that this was the "permission to discriminate" they've suspected the administration had been planning all along, but had not yet come.

The guidance, an attempt to deliver on President Donald Trump's pledge to his evangelical supporters that he would protect religious liberties, effectively lifts a burden from religious objectors to prove that their beliefs about marriage or other topics are sincerely held.

The new Justice Department guidance takes a muscular view of religious freedom rights, but officials said that the document is a neutral description of existing law and not an effort to weigh in on particular policy issues. 'To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity'.

The most immediate effect seemed to be on the Affordable Care Act's contraception coverage mandate.

Sessions had offered some legal justification for that in the memo.

"Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but the attorney general's directive is nothing but a license for businesses to discriminate".

"This is a direct attack on women's rights", said Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

In short, the new guidelines from the Trump administration are despicable.

The SPLC, meanwhile, which has monitored hate groups throughout the United States for decades, continues to stand by its label, telling ABC News it's "rightfully earned".

The right to free exercise of one's faith is good and important and valuable, sure, but in this context, the interpretation of that right has serious consequences for other rights, too.

"Under the Obama administration, agencies lost the understanding that religious freedoms extend to the public square, not just one's place of worship". They have ruled that gender discrimination does include gender identity.

Understand, the Justice Department under Sessions is already reversing numerous positions it held under President Barack Obama. The administration's new guidance also downplays harm to innocent third parties by someone acting on their religious belief.

"I support religious freedom and the freedom of full equality for every American", Baldwin said in a statement.

That will protect Americans' freedom to live in a manner consistent with their faith without fear of government punishment, said Michael Farris, the president of the religious legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

Religious schools, hospitals and other organizations would likely welcome the memo, as it would increase their ability to compete for federal grants, Garnett said.

The legal analysis was unveiled as the Trump administration is considering or pursuing a series of moves that could broaden the rights of the religious, including allowing churches more latitude to enter political campaigns without jeopardizing their tax exemptions and permitting religious institutions to receive more types of disaster relief funds.

But the justice department, led by Sessions, argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act - which outlaws discrimination based on a number of characteristics - does not provide any protections for gay people, despite outlawing sex-based discrimination. The Justice Department also recently sided with a Colorado baker in a case pending before SCOTUS this term in which the baker refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple as he claims it was against his religious beliefs. But today's guidance seems to frame differential treatment not as a result of the Establishment Clause, but as unconstitutional violations of religious entities' Free Exercise and Equal Protection rights.

However, portions of the memo seem to set things up for people to use religious freedom as a basis for LGBTI discrimination.

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