Jeff Sessions Issues Sweeping Religious Freedom Guidence to All Federal Agencies

In a set of memos issued Friday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined principles of religious freedom that federal agencies and departments are to incorporate into their work.

Donald Trump surrounded by religious right faith leaders and board member Michele Bachmann.

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.

This law "does not permit the federal government to second-guess the reasonableness of a sincerely held religious belief", the guidance says, and it places a demanding standard on government interference with religious belief or practice, including when the religious party is seeking "an exemption from a legal obligation ... to confer benefits on third parties". It instructs the department to vigorously defend religious-liberty protections in federal law.

The memo makes clear the Justice Department's support of that opinion in noting that the primary religious freedom law - the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 - protects the rights not only of people to worship as they choose but also of corporations, companies and private firms. The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights group, called the guidelines an "all-out assault" on civil rights and a "sweeping license to discriminate". This freedom extends to both individuals and organizations, and it is not surrendered when Americans engage in the marketplace or interact with the government.

Senior Justice Department officials said the guidance was not meant to be a policy position, but rather, an interpretation of existing federal law.

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The principles include an allowance for certain religious organizations to hire only people whose beliefs line up with the employer's. Many conservative Christian schools and faith-based agencies require employees to adhere to moral codes that ban sex outside marriage and same-sex relationships, among other behavior.

"Generally, the federal government may not condition federal grants or contracts on the religious organization altering its religious character, beliefs or activities", the document says.

He added: "It's unconscionable that the Trump-Pence administration also today encouraged employers to exert control over the essential health care decisions of their employees".

Expand | Collapse (Photo: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas) U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a news conference to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on September 5, 2017. Trump in May signed an executive order aimed at weakening the enforcement of that law, which he has said penalizes people for protected religious belief, although the policy has only been enforced only rarely in the past.

In a memorandum titled, "Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty", Sessions articulated 20 sweeping principles about religious freedom and what that means for the USA government - among them that freedom of religion extends to people and organizations; that religious employers are allowed to only hire those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs; and that grants can't require religious organizations to change their character.

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