Sessions outlines broad exemptions for religious freedom
Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued government-wide legal guidance Friday that urges sweeping protection for religious freedom and could impact a series of pending policy decisions involving health care, LGBT rights and even disaster relief.
Sessions billed the 25-page memo directed to all federal agencies as a response to an executive order President Donald Trump signed in May, promoting efforts to promote “religious liberty.”
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That order triggered a major showdown within the administration as religious and social conservatives pressed for treatment that could essentially allow them to ignore anti-discrimination requirements, particularly in the area of sexual orientation, while more moderate forces warned that upending existing protections would trigger an uproar that could derail other administration priorities.
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.
“Religious liberty is not merely a right to personal religious beliefs or even to worship in a sacred place,” Sessions wrote. “Except in the narrowest of circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law. Therefore, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting and programming.”
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.
The administration also announced Friday that businesses of all sizes with religious or moral objections to providing contraception coverage or other preventative services under Obamacare will be allowed to opt out of that requirement.
Officials have also debated whether to revoke or alter a policy banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Trump opted against such a move in May, but LGBT rights advocates remain on guard against such a step.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the administration’s announcements Friday as clearly in line with Supreme Court precedent.
“The president believes that the freedom to practice one’s faith is a fundamental right in this country — and I think all of us do — and that’s all that today was about. Our federal government should always protect that right, and as long as Donald Trump is president he will,” Sanders said. “The Supreme Court’s already made clear what their position is, and it supports what this administration has done.”
However, the discussions on religious freedom accommodations and the new legal guidance trudge into an area that has proved searing in the past for one particular high-ranking Trump administration official: Vice President Mike Pence.
As governor of Indiana in 2015, Pence signed a religious freedom law that appeared to give businesses broad rights to deny service to gays and lesbians, and perhaps others. An uproar followed, with many business leaders warning that the move could harm the state economically. Within days, he reversed himself and endorsed a revised measure designed to assuage concerns about discrimination.
A Justice Department official who briefed reporters on the new legal guidance insisted that it does not amount to a license to discriminate.
“It doesn’t legalize discrimination at all,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
However, the legal memo suggests that the government’s legal authority to forbid racial discrimination may not be as strong as its authority to target other forms of discrimination, such as bias against women or LGBT individuals.
“The government may be able to meet that [legal] standard with respect to race discrimination … but may not be able to with respect to other forms of discrimination,” Sessions’ memo says.
Critics said the guidance could result in LGBT individuals, women or others facing discrimination in federal programs.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value,” said Maggie Garrett of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It doesn’t mean you can use religion as an excuse to discriminate or harm others. That’s exactly what these guidelines set up.”