The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, issued a sweeping directive that undercuts federal protections for LGBT people, telling agencies to do as much as possible to accommodate those who claim their religious freedoms are violated. Anyone who values equality for all and the separation of church and state should be deeply disturbed by the message the guidelines send.
According to a Washington Post report, in a memorandum titled “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty,” Sessions articulated 20 sweeping principles about religious freedom and what that means for the U.S. government. Some of those principles are that freedom of religion extends to people and organizations; that religious employers are allowed to hire only those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs; and that grants can’t require religious organizations to change their character.
Though the principles are lofty — and some of them in no way objectionable — they could have a broad negative impact, permitting religious groups to impinge on the rights of LGBT people and others, said civil liberties advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Federation and others.
According to Session, 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 and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting, and programming,” Sessions wrote.
On Friday, the Trump administration issued a rule that substantially undermines women’s access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act. The ACLU said it would sue over that rule, but groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said they support it. The new rule allows a much broader group of employers and insurers to exempt themselves from covering contraceptives, such as birth control pills, on religious or moral grounds.
Sessions wrote in his memo that requiring employers to provide insurance coverage of contraceptives in violation of their religious belief “substantially burdens” their free practice of religion.
“The Trump administration is using the guise of religious liberty to carry out their ideological agenda to deprive women of basic reproductive health care,” Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She called it a “direct attack on women’s rights.”
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