DOJ lays out Trump admin’s guidelines for religious liberties protections

DOJ lays out Trump admin’s guidelines for religious liberties protections

The Justice Department issued legal guidance across the federal government Friday that will shape how the Trump administration interprets religious liberties protections, interpretations expected to come into play in a number of ongoing lawsuits.

The memo, issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, does not resolve any specific ongoing litigation, but it will serve as a baseline for how the Justice Department will interpret current federal laws such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Among 20 principles outlined in the memo, the Justice Department finds that RFRA protections extend not just to individuals but also to organizations, associations and at least some for-profit companies and that the government is not permitted to “second-guess the reasonableness of a religious belief.”

As an example, the memo states that the Department of Health and Human Services cannot second-guess “the determination of a religious employer that providing contraceptive coverage to its employees would make the employer complicit in wrongdoing in violation of the organization’s religious precepts.”

The DOJ memo was issued the same day that the Trump administration announced it would allow employers to claim religious or moral objections in order to be exempt from providing birth control coverage in their health insurance plans.

DOJ officials said in drafting the memo, they consulted with numerous religious groups and civil liberties organizations, including the ACLU and Alliance Defending Freedom.

President Trump ordered the attorney general to conduct an evaluation of religious liberties protections in an executive order issued in May.

Mr. Sessions said the memo issued Friday fulfills that requirement.

“The constitutional protection of religious beliefs and the right to exercise those beliefs have served this country well, have made us one of the most tolerant countries in the world, and have also helped make us the freest and most generous,” Mr. Sessions said. “President Trump promised that this administration would ‘lead by example on religious liberty,’ and he is delivering on that promise.”

Among other principles outlined in the memo, the Justice Department instructs that “Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government.”

The interpretation appears relevant in the Justice Department’s recent decision to file a Supreme Court brief siding with a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

In a brief filed last month, DOJ lawyers said trying to force Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker, to make a cake for someone against his beliefs violates his conscience rights.

Mr. Phillips refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, drawing the ire of a Colorado civil rights commission that said he was illegally discriminating in his business practices. Courts have upheld the commission’s ruling, and Mr. Phillips has appealed to the Supreme Court.

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