Trump DOJ and HHS Issue Major Religious Liberty, Pro-Life Protections

Saul Bowman
October 8, 2017

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday issued a 25-page memo that establishes the Trump administration's interpretation of federal law and regulations in an attempt to deliver to religious conservatives the widest possible license to discriminate, especially against the LGBT community. Experts on religious liberty are saying Sessions' "guidance" will mostly likely prompt wide-ranging lawsuits against the government.

Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions is instructing all federal agencies to ensure to the "greatest extent practicable and permitted by law" that the religious beliefs of people, businesses, churches and other organizations are accommodated and not burdened by the federal government.

The policy says the mere claim that someone's religious freedom was violated is enough to override many anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, women and others. "This is a signal to the rest of these agencies to rethink the protections they have put in place on sexual orientation and gender identity". "Freedom of religion is paramount to our nation's success but does not give people the right to impose their beliefs on others to harm others or to discriminate". They are an open invitation to discrimination against women, members of the LGBT population, and others, all in the name of "religious freedom".

The HHS had interpreted the Affordable Care Act to include a mandate on cost-free coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that can cause early abortions in health plans.

"Our country has a long history of protecting religious liberty", General Counsel for First Liberty Hiram Sasser said in a written statement. The government's compelling interest in enforcing these laws should mean the businesses lose their arguments - but the Department of Justice guidance suggests that the interest in ending discrimination against LGBT people isn't actually all that important.

The Washington Blade notes Sessions issued three memos - one to administrative agencies, another to Justice Department attorneys, and one providing background.

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.


The Human Rights Campaign worries about some additional outcomes, though: That government officials themselves will be able to refuse to do their jobs when it comes to dealing with gay or transgender people (see: Kim Davis); and that federal contractors and faith-based organizations like hospitals would be able to discriminate against LGBT people and be able to refuse to provide services even in a crisis.

He additionally explained that the government can not compel a person or organization to act contrary to their religion, stating that "a government action that bans an aspect of an adherent's religious observance or practice, compels an act inconsistent with that observance or practice, will qualify as a substantial burden on the exercise of religion".

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

Finally, the document released by Sessions said that religious organizations must have equal footing in applying for federal aid or grant programs - they may not be denied participation in these programs when the money is going toward activities that are not explicitly religious in nature. 'The White House says the guidance "does not authorize anyone to discriminate" - and Lambda Legal will make sure it doesn't'.

The guidance also contends that religious protections to Title VII discrimination law extend to "discrimination on the basis of religious observance or practices as well as belief". So courts have ruled this way. "We urge the federal courts to reject the radical efforts by this administration to justify discrimination on the basis of religion".

Although Congress intended the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to only apply to individual's religious freedoms from government infringement, in the ensuing years, some for-profit companies and religious groups have claimed religious rights as justification for discriminating against women and LGBTI people.

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