US attorney manual update signals hope for religious liberty

US attorney manual update signals hope for religious liberty
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Earlier this month, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an update to its U.S. Attorneys’ Manual. This is more than a boring bit of bureaucratic book-keeping: These updates tend to reflect the values and priorities of the DOJ, and function as a sort of roadmap for the department’s coming years.

That’s why one of the DOJ’s changes is especially good news for religious liberty. Among the most important changes is that the department’s central office will assume a more direct role in cases involving the Free Exercise Clause, Establishment Clause, and Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This update demonstrates that this DOJ is providing critical leadership on the issue of our First Freedom: When Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBiden fact checks Trump on 545 families separated at border, calls policy 'criminal' Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump's erratic tweets upend stimulus talks; COVID-19 spreads in White House MORE directs his United States attorneys to coordinate all religious liberty matters through Washington, he is making the religious liberty of all Americans a top priority, something with which he wants those closest to him deeply engaged.

Of course, this follows on the heels of Attorney General Sessions, at the direction of President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE, issuing comprehensive guidance on religious liberty. That guidance, issued last October, brought much needed clarity and direction to the administrative state that for far too long took a dim view of religious liberty.

In contrast, even Justice Kagan took exception to former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderAlarm grows over Trump team's efforts to monitor polls The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements Obama endorses Warnock in crowded Georgia Senate race MORE’s refusal to acknowledge even the most basic principles of religious liberty. During the DOJ’s oral argument involving the foundational issue of whether the government may interfere with a church’s hiring of a minister, Justice Kagan stated:

“I too find that amazing, that you think that … neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Establishment Clause has anything to say about a church’s relationship with its own employees.”

Attorney General Sessions is resurrecting religious liberty.

It appears that the days of abandoning protections in the law for religious liberty — including bipartisan laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — may be a thing of the past. The critical leadership of the attorney general and his staff to protect religious liberty for all Americans will do much to strengthen all of our core freedoms.

DOJ’s defense of our first liberty is critical as it also comes at a time when those who seek to constrain not only religious freedom, but other protected rights are taking advantage of America’s ignorance of the Bill of Rights.  Sadly, nearly one-in-four Americans cannot name a single right protected in the First Amendment.

Few Americans understand what is at stake in the legal fight over how religious liberty will be defined by our courts. That the DOJ is elevating the issue to such high import indicates its understanding of the centrality of religious liberty to our constitutional experience.

When the DOJ announced the updated manual, then Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand explained:

“Religious liberty is an inalienable right protected by the Constitution, and defending it is one of the most important things we do at the Department of Justice.”

That may not have been a profound comment if this were any other era in American history. But, this is 2018. After nearly a decade of a DOJ that prided itself on reframing religious liberty as merely the “right to worship” and spending years in courtrooms across this country trying to force nuns to violate their religious convictions, Brand’s comments are especially refreshing.

This DOJ is not only currently staffed with those who have the impeccable credentials one would expect, but who are also dedicated to preserving and defending the first liberty, religious liberty, enshrined in the First Amendment. After more than 15 years as a civil rights attorney focusing on religious liberty litigation, I’m encouraged to see the DOJ provide critical leadership on the issue of our First Freedom.

Hiram S. Sasser, III, is General Counsel to First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. Read more at FirstLiberty.org