US: Jeff Sessions Just Issued New Guidance On Protecting “Religious Liberty”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal agencies and attorneys on Friday to protect religious liberty in a broad, yet vague, guidance memo that critics fear could give people of faith — including government workers and contractors — a loophole to ignore federal bans on discrimination against women and LGBT people.

The guidance says the government cannot unduly burden people or certain businesses from practicing their faith, noting, “The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.”

The policy does not create new law, but rather interprets how the government should construe the Constitution and existing federal law. It comes on the heels of the Justice Department weighing in on a religious liberty case, in which lawyers under Sessions argued in a brief to the US Supreme Court that a Christian baker had a First Amendment right to deny a gay couple a cake for their wedding.

The guidance memo, which avoided mentioning pending cases by name but did refer to the ongoing controversy over contraception coverage in Obamacare, directs federal agencies to observe 20 “principles of religious liberty.” Among them, it says that religious employers are entitled to hire only workers whose beliefs and conduct are “consistent with the employer's’ religious beliefs” — a directive adopted under former President George W. Bush — and that some of the legal principles extend “not just to individuals, but also to organizations, associations, and at least some for-profit corporations.”

The US Department of Health and Human Services on Friday announced new rulesthat will allow employers with a “moral” or “religious” objection to stop covering contraception for employees.

One portion of the guidance directs lawyers in the Justice Department to scrutinize all proposed federal regulations, saying that the department won’t concur in the issuance of any rule that conflicts with the religious guidance.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT group, issued a statement calling the guidance a “sweeping license to discriminate that puts millions of LGBTQ Americans at risk.”

The group contends the policy could allow federal contractors refuse service to LGBT customers, could let workers at the IRS refuse to process paperwork for same-sex couples, and may open a door for organizations to discriminate in health care and benefits for employees. The House LGBT caucus, meanwhile, called the guidance a "clear attack on the rights of LGBT community" in a statement. Read more via Buzzfeed