Sessions Issues Sweeping Religious Liberty Guidance to Federal Agencies

(CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping directive to federal agencies Friday to do as much as possible to accommodate those who claim their religious freedoms are being violated. But critics say the guidance could undermine protections for the LGBT community.

The guidance, an attempt to deliver on President Donald Trump’s pledge to his evangelical supporters that he would protect religious liberties, effectively lifts a burden from religious objectors to prove that their beliefs about marriage or other topics are sincerely held.

The 25-page memo maps out 20 guiding principles reminding agencies that freedom of religion is a fundamental right and that the free exercise of religion “includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.”

“Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law,” Sessions wrote. “Therefore, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting and programming.”

The 20-point guidance specifically says that the government cannot make the disavowal of a religious view a condition of an organization or group receiving a grant or contract from the federal government and that “the freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.”

“The free exercise clause protects not just persons, but persons collectively exercising their religion through churches or other religious denominations, religious organizations, schools, private associations and even businesses,” the guidelines state.

The guidance later says that the government cannot “second-guess” whether a person’s religious belief is reasonable and instructs that the scrutiny given to government regulations on the exercise of religion must be “exceptionally demanding.”

The guidelines touch on a number of high-profile religious liberty disputes, including the Hobby Lobby case that challenged the requirement that employers provide health insurance coverage that includes contraception. It also says the government cannot enforce the so-called Johnson Amendment, which threatens to strip tax-exempt status from religious groups that engaged in political advocacy.

Trump promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment during his presidential campaign and the guidance is part of an executive order Trump signed in May saying the executive branch would “vigorously” enforce religious freedom laws.

Religious liberty activist groups praised the new guidance when it was released Friday morning.

“All Americans should have the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of government punishment,” said Michael Farris, the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom. “The guidance that the Trump administration issued today helps protect that First Amendment freedom.”

However, LGBT activist groups have expressed concerns that Trump’s religious freedom initiatives could allow companies and government agencies to legally discriminate under the guise of religious freedom.

“Today’s guidance by Jeff Sessions proves this administration will do anything possible to categorize LGBTQ Americans as second-class citizens who are not equal under the law,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president of LGBT advocacy group GLADD, said in a statement. “Freedom of religion is paramount to our nation’s success but does not give people the right to impose their beliefs on others to harm others or to discriminate. Nothing could be more un-American and unholy than using religion to justify harm and discrimination to others.”

But the guidance is so sweeping that experts on religious liberty suggested Friday that it could prompt a slew of lawsuits against the government. Under the new policy, a claim of a violation of religious freedom would be enough to override many anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, women and others.

“This is putting the world on notice: You better take these claims seriously,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This is a signal to the rest of these agencies to rethink the protections they have put in place on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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