Sessions Implements Religious Freedom Directive Critics Call 'License to Discriminate'

Special Counsel Robert Mueller (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued a directive to all administrative agencies and executive departments stipulating that to the “greatest extent” possible “religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting, and programming” — the implementation of an executive order that critics branded a “license to discriminate.”

“Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people. It has protected both the freedom to worship and the freedom not to believe. Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith,” Sessions said in a statement. “The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage.”

The Human Rights Campaign reviewed Sessions’ memo and determined that examples of effects on the LGBT community could include a Social Security Administration employee refusing to process benefits for a surviving same-sex spouse, a federal contractor refusing to provide services to LGBTQ people including in emergencies, or agencies refusing to provide services to LGBTQ children in crisis or place adoptive or foster children with a same-sex couple.

“This blatant attempt to further Donald Trump’s cynical and hateful agenda will enable systematic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on LGBTQ people and their families,” said HRC president Chad Griffin. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence have proven they will stop at nothing to target the LGBTQ community and drag our nation backwards. We will fight them every step of the way.”

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins noted that the guidance found religious employers have the right to hire “only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers’ religious precepts.”

“While the Obama administration quarantined religious beliefs as if they are a plague — the Trump administration is restoring our First Freedom to where it’s belonged since the founding of our country,” Perkins said. “Federal agencies are on notice: you will not only respect the freedom of every American to believe, but the free exercise of religion.”

American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling said that “weligious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to discriminate or harm others,” and “this guidance turns that understanding of religious freedom on its head.”

“This guidance, for example, interprets federal law to countenance discrimination that is not now sanctioned and it encourages private groups to discriminate with government funds. In short, it licenses discrimination against the LGBT community, women seeking reproductive care, and religious minorities,” she said. “That is not the business of the Department of Justice.”

The ACLU and Service Employee International Union-United Health Care Workers West filed a lawsuit today against the Department of Health and Human Services final rule on conscience-based objections in Obamacare’s preventive-care mandate. HHS stipulated employer exemptions for “providing an otherwise mandated item to which they object on the basis of their religious beliefs or moral conviction.”

“Out of millions of employers in the U.S., these exemptions may impact only about 200 entities, the number that that filed lawsuits based on religious or moral objections,” HHS added of the change to the contraceptive coverage mandate. “These rules will not affect over 99.9% of the 165 million women in the United States.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump “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.”

SEIU-UHW president Dave Regan said in a statement, “With the stroke of a pen, the Trump administration has shamelessly attempted to rip away the rights of untold numbers of women to receive essential healthcare, under the warped facade of ‘religious freedom.’ Apparently, ‘religious freedom’ to this administration is the freedom to allow bosses to make medical decisions for and discriminate against female employees. Women in the workplace need compassionate care, not doors slammed in their faces by their employers.”