ACLU Fights for Memos Behind Religious-Liberty Order

MANHATTAN (CN) – The American Civil Liberties Union is demanding that four federal agencies release information about an executive order President Donald Trump reportedly planned to sign carving out religious-freedom exemptions the group says target the gay community.

The ACLU on Thursday sued the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor and Treasury in Manhattan federal court, claiming they are stonewalling its Freedom of Information Act request for documents on the Trump administration’s alleged plans “to authorize religiously-motivated discrimination.”

In May, President Trump signed an executive order nixing an IRS rule that says religious organizations and other nonprofits that endorse political candidates risk losing their tax-exempt status. The order also allows organizations and businesses to opt out of providing birth control for religious reasons.

At the time, the ACLU said it had no plans to sue because the executive order did not seem to make any substantial policy change.

“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said after the order was signed two months ago. “After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.”

However, in March, the ACLU filed records requests with the Departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services, Labor and Justice seeking any records or memos about any potential policy shifts that could impact the LGBT community.

According to Thursday’s lawsuit, the requests were based on media reports in February that Trump planned to issue a separate executive order “that would require federal agencies to fund, authorize, and endorse religiously motivated discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, women, religious minorities, people seeking reproductive healthcare, and children who receive federal services.”

“Although President Trump did not sign the executive order in February, the Trump administration is still actively considering similar plans to authorize religiously-motivated discrimination in federal programs through new executive orders or regulations,” the complaint states. “[The ACLU] has therefore sought documents to uncover the details of the Trump Administration’s plans to authorize religious exemptions from nondiscrimination requirements.”

The ACLU claims none of the four federal agencies have responded to its FOIA request, despite a 20-day deadline to decide whether to comply.

“Plaintiff is legally entitled to these documents, which were requested approximately four months ago,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants have far exceeded the statutory and regulatory time limitations to respond.”

The ACLU posted a series of tweets Thursday about its FOIA complaint.

“The executive order Trump signed was vague and open-ended, but we know this admin is exploring different ways to license discrimination,” the group said. “Now that the admin has taken first steps to use religious exemptions for discrimination, the American people deserve clarity on what’s next. Our lawsuit demands any communications regarding, among other items, plans for how DOJ’s ‘religious liberty’ guidance might be implemented.”

The civil rights group is represented in the case by in-house attorney Joshua Block.

The Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor and Treasury did not immediately respond Friday to email requests for comment.

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