"Our country has a long history of protecting religious liberty", General Counsel for First Liberty Hiram Sasser said in a written statement. Senators who care about civil rights must press Attorney General Sessions on this issue when he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee in two weeks. That assurance is left out in important passages asserting the primacy of religious freedom that could be construed to allow anti-LGBT discrimination.
"Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people".
The memo, which dovetailed with another rule from President Donald Trump's administration Friday that extended exceptions from the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate to religiously affiliated organizations, gives guidance across federal agencies about a new series of stances on religious expression.
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'.
But key portions of the memos should be troubling to proponents of LGBT rights.
"A law that seeks to compel a private person's speech or expression contrary to his or her religious beliefs implicates both the freedoms of speech and free exercise", which Sessions wrote in the appendix, bolsters the argument of the baker who doesn't want to make a cake for a gay man or woman's birthday. The administration's new guidance also downplays harm to innocent third parties by someone acting on their religious belief.
However, LGBT advocates and liberal critics argue that such broad religious exemptions in the guidance could set up the potential for LGBT individuals be discriminated against in federal programs and could also have other impacts. The memo highlighted sex-specific bathrooms as such an example.
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How will this policy affect women and the LGBTQ+ community? Although the executive order said nothing about LGBT issues, many feared handing that authority to Sessions would enable to him direct the government to discriminate against LGBT people. Donald Trump and Mike Pence have proven they will stop at nothing to target the LGBTQ community and drag our nation backwards. "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".
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.
It also said religious organizations may be exempt from following certain discrimination laws if doing so would conflict with the organization's religious principles. They said it was not meant to address any current legal dispute, nor was it meant to condone discrimination.
"This is an attempt by the administration to pressure agencies to overlook concerns about discrimination against vulnerable communities", said Camilla Taylor, senior counsel at Lambda Legal. The Trump administration pitches its rules weakening the birth control coverage mandate as policies that give voice to a purportedly "silenced" group.
The 25-page guidance outlines religious freedom protections in existing federal law that federal departments and agencies are to incorporate into their functions. It can be used for an organization refusing to offer birth control to their employees.
- Arguing in court that firing an employee for being gay was justified.
Many other states have passed similar religious freedom bills.