Sessions issues 'religious freedom' guidance undermining LGBT rights

Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions says federal civil rights law does not protect transgender people from discrimination at work.

The new DOJ memo is "an attempt to deliver on President Donald Trump's pledge to his evangelical and other religious supporters", the AP reports, saying it "effectively lifts a burden from religious objectors to prove that their beliefs about marriage or other topics are sincerely held".

In a call with reporters, ADF CEO Michael Farris confirmed to ABC News that Sessions met with the group during a series of so-called "listening sessions" convened by the Attorney General, who says he was "seeking suggestions regarding the areas of federal protection for religious liberty most in need of clarification or guidance".

Though the principles are lofty - and some of them in no way objectionable - they could have broad negative impact, permitting religious groups to impinge on the rights of LGBT people and others, civil liberties advocates said. Many conservative Christian schools and faith-based agencies require employees to adhere to moral codes that ban sex outside marriage and same-sex relationships, among other behavior. Religious freedom proponents have argued for this definition avidly in recent years, amid fears that the idea was being eroded, especially as the phrase "freedom of worship" often replaced "freedom of religion" in the Obama administration. "A lot of municipalities already have policies prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people", Hoover said. This has been an important issue in the weeks after Hurricane Harvey with a group of Houston churches suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, claiming they had been denied disaster relief grants due to their religious status.

The breadth of the guidance is stunning-from the administration's point of view, it's legal for almost any business to fire someone or deny a person services based on religious objections. That could conflict with former President Obama's 2014 executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace, which President Trump said he'd uphold, and green-light anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors in other capacities, such as the denial of services. Further, our nation has a longstanding bi-partisan commitment to religious liberty as evidenced by Senator Ted Kennedy's passionate advocacy for the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The statement released Friday makes clear that, in Sessions' view, the benefit of the doubt should go to the person declaring a religious belief over those claiming illegal discrimination.

Sessions' assertion that "every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith" is, on its face, an innocuous-sounding statement with which anyone who possesses a pocket Constitution would have a tough time disagreeing.




Also included in the guidance is a section asserting religious organization acting on their beliefs shouldn't be penalized in competition for federal contracts.

The new DOJ memo comes amid a flurry of policy moves by the Trump administration this week that will disproportionately affect women and the LGBTQ community, including a rollback of the federal birth control mandate and a reversal of government policy that protected transgender workers from discrimination.

Carey added, "Don't be fooled; this guidance isn't meant to protect people of faith".

Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said while the guidance does not change any laws or enact new rules, it forecasts the stance the Trump administration will take in ongoing or future litigation. "The White House says the guidance "does not authorize anyone to discriminate" - and Lambda Legal will make sure it doesn't".

He outlined as examples that religious entities may not be excluded from secular aid programs-in reference to the June U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer-and may not be prohibited from distributing religious materials simply due to their content. "Nothing could be more un-American and unholy that using religion to justify harm and discrimination to others".

The guidance also reiterates that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers covered by the regulation from discriminating based on an individual's religious belief, observance or practice, "unless the employer can not reasonably accommodate such observance or practice without undue hardship".

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