On Friday Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued new instructions to federal agencies giving government workers, federal contractors, and others legal permission to ignore federal bans on discrimination against women and LGBT people.
The guidance overrides executive orders issues by President Obama that protected LGBT people from some forms of discrimination, declaring that people should be free to discriminate on the grounds of religion. "The guidelines are so sweeping that experts on religious liberty are calling them a legal powder-keg that could prompt wide-ranging lawsuits against the government".
Among other principles outlined in the memo, the Justice Department instructs that religious employers are entitled to employ those whose beliefs and actions align with their own religious beliefs, and also that "Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government".
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.
The guidance includes the assurance that it "does not authorize anyone to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity in violation of federal law or change existing federal and state protections".
"The president 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".
Based on the Session memo earlier Friday the Trump administration issued a sweeping rollback of the ObamaCare contraception mandate, that requires almost all employers to ensure health insurance plans provide contraception at no out-of-pocket cost to employees or those on their plans.
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"The attempts by the previous administration to provide some protections were inadequate", said a senior HHS official of the Obama administration's efforts to provide workarounds for religious groups. "A lot of municipalities already have policies prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people", Hoover said.
He additionally explained that the government can not compel a person or organization to act contrary to their religion, stating that "a government action that bans an aspect of an adherent's religious observance or practice, compels an act inconsistent with that observance or practice, will qualify as a substantial burden on the exercise of religion". Religious social service providers, for example, would be able to use federal funds to discriminate against LGBTQ people in hiring and services. Its bold language highlights the crucial role of religious freedom in American life. Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith. Federal law says that is permitted, the memo says.
Carey added, "Don't be fooled; this guidance isn't meant to protect people of faith". The SPLC said ADF "works to develop "religious liberty" legislation and case law that will allow the denial of good and services to LGBT people on the basis of relgion" and "has supported the recminalization of homosexuality in the US and criminalization overseas". The principle was also at play earlier this year, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Lutheran church that was seeking to make safety improvements on its playground through a state reimbursement program.
Sessions also clarifies religious protections under Title VII in federal law governing employers, regarding (#16) not discriminating against employees on the basis of religion, including (#17) religious observance and practice. This is consistent with the EEOC's 2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan, which includes "p$3 rotecting lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination based on sex" as a top enforcement priority.
Additionally, in 2015 while Mike Pence was governor, in passed its own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite outcry from opponents who argued the bill could be used to legally discriminate against LGBTI people.