Civil rights groups slam DOJ for 'despicable' religious liberty guidance

Civil rights groups slam DOJ for 'despicable' religious liberty guidance

Civil rights groups are slamming federal guidelines on religious liberty announced Friday by the Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCurtis wins Chaffetz's former Utah House seat Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny FBI can’t unlock Texas shooter’s phone MORE, claiming it paves the way for discrimination against LGBT people, women and minorities.

“Today’s despicable action from the Trump-Pence administration is unprecedented and allows for Kim Davis-style discrimination and beyond all throughout this country,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign.

Winterof referenced the county clerk in Kentucky who made headlines in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court legalized it nationwide.

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The guidance issued by Sessions in a 20-page memo reminds agencies that freedom of religion is a fundamental right and that the free exercise of religion “includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.”

It also states that religious organizations may be exempt from following certain discrimination laws if doing so would conflict with the organization’s religious principles

It’s that provision and the broad reading of a religious freedom law that has aroused fears and outrage from the Human Rights Campaign and other groups.

Lousie Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the guidance extends the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, giving federal agencies, employees and government contractors a broad license to discriminate against anyone whose beliefs conflict with their faith. 

While Friday’s guidance is not the same as a federal rulemaking or law, advocates say it dictates what stance the government will take in litigation, contracting and administering grant funding.

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that while the First Amendment protects the rights to freedom of religion, it does not allow anyone to impose their beliefs on another or allow for discrimination.

“There is not a religious exemption from basic human dignity,” she said.

The Justice Department says its guidance “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.”

“The guidance also does not change in any way the existing state or federal protections for minority groups, including members of the LGBT community,” Ian Prior, a department spokesman, said in a statement.

“The guidance merely points out and explains the relevant protections for religious liberty that already exist within federal law.”

Sessions also sent a subsequent memo to the Justice Department on Friday detailing how the first order should be implemented.

Advocates said the memos effectively direct agencies to run religious freedom tests on all agency actions, something noted by Think Progress, the independent news site of the Center for American Progress.

Religious groups applauded the Justice Department for its actions.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said agencies under former President Obama lost the understanding that religious freedoms extend beyond one's place of worship to the public square.

“As a result, our own government began threatening hardworking, patriotic Americans with crushing fines for simply seeking to live their lives according to their faith,” he said in a statement.

“President Trump and the Department of Justice are putting federal government agencies on notice: you will not only respect the freedom of every American to believe but live according to those beliefs.”

Perkins went on to announce that his organization is launching a web hotline “for those who believe that they have suffered discrimination at the hands of federal agencies based on their religious beliefs or practices.”

The “Free to Believe” hotline will help ensure that no federal employee, contractor or citizen will be forced to choose between their faith and equal treatment by the federal government, he said.