LGBT rights threatened by Trump admin's religious objection order

Pauline Gross
October 8, 2017

All eyes were on the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday, as the Trump administration announced a major broadening of exemptions to the federal contraception mandate, prompting cheers from religious freedom proponents nationwide.

The statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with a long legal analysis by the department's lawyers, is meant to be guidance to the rest of the federal government on how to decide conflicts involving declarations of religious belief _ for example, the recent case involving a baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple's wedding.

In a memorandum titled, "Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty", Sessions articulated 20 sweeping principles about religious freedom and what that means for the US government - among them that freedom of religion extends to people and organizations; that religious employers are allowed to only hire those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs; and that grants can't require religious organizations to change their character.

Sessions forcefully criticized the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, "horrifying" Shepard's mother, who subsequently spoke out against his nomination to the office of attorney general.

Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation, said in a statement the religious freedom guidance is a "license to discriminate" and "an attack on the values of freedom and fairness that make this nation great". They are an open invitation to discrimination against women, members of the LGBT population, and others, all in the name of "religious freedom". "It also encompasses religious observance and practice".

"Our country has a long history of protecting religious liberty", General Counsel for First Liberty Hiram Sasser said in a written statement.

"Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people", Sessions said in an October 6 statement.

"This isn't just a federal issue, it's an issue at the state level and even the local level".

Naturally, a top Trump support, Tony Perkins of the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council, praised the administration's new interpretations of law.

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RFRA does not permit the federal government to second-guess the reasonableness of a sincerely held religious belief.

According to the memo's 20 "principles", employers should be able to hire only "persons whose belief and conduct are consistent with the employer's religious precepts". But Justice Department officials insist they are drawing from lessons learned since Project Safe Neighborhoods was initially launched in 2001.

Today's guidance also confirms that government can not interfere with the autonomy of religious organizations.

This is significant because certain Catholic colleges did not receive religious exemptions from the contraceptive mandate, Mercer said, yet the government should have honored their religious objections.

"Generally, the federal government may not condition federal grants or contracts on the religious organization altering its religious character, beliefs or activities", the document says.

The unanswerable concern, though, is whether a Sessions-run Justice Department actually would act in cases of emergencies or take steps to make sure that government agencies themselves treat LGBT people equally as the law demands when it comes to areas like marriage rights and benefits.

He outlined as examples that religious entities may not be excluded from secular aid programs-in reference to the June U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer-and may not be prohibited from distributing religious materials simply due to their content. The church had initially been turned away because of its religious affiliation.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a document called the "Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty".

The fight over the proper role of religious liberty in the nation is far from over, however. The broad effect of the guidance will continue to unfold in the coming months. The ultimate outcome remains to be seen. Challenges to it will undoubtedly arise as well.

Other reports by GizPress

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