Civil liberties groups decry Sessions' guidance on religious freedom


Attorney General Jeff Sessions is telling federal agencies to do as much as possible to accommodate people who have religious objections to LGBT rights.

Sessions had been instructed to "issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law" by an executive order signed by President Trump in May.

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".

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the federal government can enforce laws that impose a significant burden on religious exercise only if it has a compelling interest, and if the regulation/law/requirement is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.

Though the principles are lofty - and some of them in no way objectionable - they could have broad negative impact, permitting religious groups to impinge on the rights of LGBT people and others, civil liberties advocates said.

That background memo insists the move 'does not authorize anyone to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity in violation of federal law or change existing federal and state protections'.

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.

ACLU has announced that it is suing the Trump administration to block the new rules allowing employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control.

The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance, expressly protected by federal law.

Critics said the guidance could result in LGBT individuals, women or others facing discrimination in federal programs.

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Under the interim final rules released Friday, non-profits, small businesses, and even some publicly-traded companies can apply for a religious exemption to the mandate, if they establish that complying with the mandate would violate their religious beliefs.

The breadth of the guidance is stunning-from the administration's point of view, it's legal for almost any business to fire someone or deny a person services based on religious objections.

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

"Democrats support the right of LGBTQ people to live and work without fear of being fired or discriminated against simply because of who they are". That could conflict with former President Obama's 2014 executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace, which President Trump said he'd uphold, and green-light anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors in other capacities, such as the denial of services.

Government may not interfere with the autonomy of a religious organization.

Sessions also clarifies religious protections under Title VII in federal law governing employers, regarding (#16) not discriminating against employees on the basis of religion, including (#17) religious observance and practice. It references the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case rejecting contraception mandates.

Sessions then provided 20 principles pertaining to religious liberty, as well as pertinent case law on the matter.

According to Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin, the new guidance makes millions of Americans vulnerable to discrimination. "A license to discriminate goes against our core American values and I fear that the guidance the Justice Department issued today is not created to help agencies comply with the law, but rather to give them greater leeway to condone discrimination against LGBTQ people, women and others".

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.