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 SessionsTrump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' Trump's tirades, taunts and threats are damaging our democracy 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 TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' 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 HolderAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials We can't allow presidents and public opinion to further diminish the work of the press Democrats sue over North Carolina's congressional maps 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