Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping memo Friday on religious freedom that instructs agencies to do as much as they can to protect the religious liberty of individuals and employers at the expense of civil rights.
The directive doesn’t create new laws but rather issues instructions on how to interpret existing laws. And the interpretation it puts forward opens the door, critics argue, for discrimination against LGBT people and women. Its central argument is that the government impinges on individual freedom by improperly asking them to take actions that contradict their faith.
“The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs,” Sessions writes in the memo.
Among the 20 “principles” the memo outlines is one that allows employers to hire only “persons whose belief and conduct are consistent with the employer’s religious precepts.” This applies, the memo says, not just to religious organizations, but to privately held companies as well.
That means that an employer could fire a gay person, or a single mother, because their actions don’t fit with the employer’s religious beliefs.
The guidance drew criticism from civil rights organizations, and even from members of religious communities. The principles “don’t represent the essence of what it means to be true people of faith,” said Fred Davie, a Presbyterian minister and vice president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. “They don’t represent the essence of what it means to be Christian.”
“This anti-civil rights administration is on a mission to undo the progress that our country has made over the last half century,” said Vanita Gupta, of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The memo comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s issuing another memo, siding with a baker in Indiana who refused service to a gay couple on the basis of his faith in a case that’s currently being heard before the Supreme Court.
And on Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services dropped the mandate requiring employers to provide birth control as part of their health insurance program on the basis of religious belief.
Sessions issued Friday’s guidance in line with President Donald Trump’s executive order on religious liberty, issued in May, which instructed the Justice Department to issue directives on the interpretation of religious freedom.
Notably, too, the memo addresses directly the Johnson Amendment, the provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits churches and other non-profits from endorsing political candidates. The document says that the IRS might not enforce the rule “against a religious nonprofit organization under circumstances in which it would not enforce the amendment against a secular nonprofit organization.”