AG Sessions announces guidelines that broaden religious freedom

The memos were issued in response to an executive order signed by President Trump in May, declaring, "It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce federal law's robust protections for religious freedom" and instructing the attorney general to "issue guidance interpreting religious-liberty protections in federal law".

In another about-face from the Trump administration, Jeff Sessions issued a memo two days ago stating that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which bans workplace discrimination on the basis of sex) does not protect individuals against discrimination on the basis of "gender identity per se, including discrimination against transgender individuals".

The new guidance says that the government can not place an undue burden on people or businesses because "the free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one's religious beliefs".

"This guidance will help protect families like the Vander Boons in MI who were threatened with the effective closure of their family-run business for simply expressing a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government". The memo comes a day after Sessions rescinded a policy protecting transgender people from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. "It is countenancing exercises of faith in a way that will harm other individuals".

Unsurprisingly, the DOJ's directive was met with effusive praise by right-wing lawmakers and religious organizations, and fierce condemnation by civil rights groups that argue the Sessions memo constitutes little more than a "license to discriminate" against the LGBTQ community.

Based on the Session memo earlier Friday the Trump administration issued a sweeping rollback of the ObamaCare contraception mandate, that requires almost all employers to ensure health insurance plans provide contraception at no out-of-pocket cost to employees or those on their plans.

The guidelines are seen as potentially undermining protections for LGBTI people since religious freedom is often used as a justification for LGBTI discrimination. "A lot of municipalities already have policies prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people", Hoover said.

Freedom of religion does not give people right to discriminate.

The memo asserts the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies not just to people, but organizations and some for-profit companies. "There will be numerous interpretations of what that religious freedom test would be and how the license to discrimination would be applied across particular agencies, grants and contracts", Stachelberg says. As it turns out, this sweeping declaration is not some banal, symbolic, academic labor of love, but is instead a carefully-constructed justification for the administration's decision to extend legal protections to sex discrimination.

The new rules "substantially expand the scope of that religious exemption", Greg Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said.

Sessions' assertion that "every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith" is, on its face, an innocuous-sounding statement with which anyone who possesses a pocket Constitution would have a tough time disagreeing.

In issuing the memo, Sessions is injecting the department into a thicket of highly charged legal questions that have repeatedly reached the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case that said corporations with religious objections could opt out of a health law requirement to cover contraceptives for women.

The guidance also reiterates that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers covered by the regulation from discriminating based on an individual's religious belief, observance or practice, "unless the employer can not reasonably accommodate such observance or practice without undue hardship".

"This discrimination is not an American value".

Advocates for the rights of women and LGBT people have quickly condemned a move by the Trump administration that will make it infinitely easier to get away with discriminating by claiming that having to treat people fairly violates their religious liberty.

Additionally, in 2015 while Mike Pence was governor, in passed its own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite outcry from opponents who argued the bill could be used to legally discriminate against LGBTI people.

  • Joey Payne