AG Sessions announces guidelines that broaden religious freedom

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has issued a 25-page memo giving all federal agencies guidelines to an executive order President Donald Trump signed in May, promoting efforts to promote religious liberty.

The legal guidelines dramatically broaden the scope of what the government will define as "religious freedom" to include health care, civil rights, and even disaster relief.


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."

It should be noted that most of these exemptions involve only a small number of people and organizations.  But the numbers don't matter – something the Obama administration never understood.

On the contraceptive exemption, for example, the Obama administration tried twice to draw up guidelines that it believed would give religious organizations a "work-around" for their consciences by allowing them to have insurance companies pay for contraception coverage – as if someone can "work around" his most cherished religious beliefs.

The DoJ guidelines stop that nonsense and do what should have been done at the outset of Obamacare: allow a religious exemption for the contraception mandate.

The religious exemption for those individuals and companies that don't want to have anything to do with the redefinition of marriage is more complicated.

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.

As an example, a baker may not be able to discriminate against gays who patronize his establishment, but he could invoke a religious exemption if he is asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding.  Much remains to be worked out, but any expansion of the concept of religious liberty after decades of this precious right being under attack is welcome.