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Federal memo on religious freedom draws praise

WASHINGTON (BP) — Southern Baptist and other religious freedom defenders have hailed the Trump administration’s new guidelines to safeguard in federal law the free exercise of religion.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum Oct. 6 to executive branch departments and agencies that provides guidance on religious liberty protections. In introducing 20 principles of religious freedom, Sessions said, “[T]o the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting, and programming.”

Supporters of the guidelines commended them for their interpretation of religious freedom.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hailed the guidance as “a great development.” He tweeted, “These principles are right in line w/First Amendment.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. — a Southern Baptist — applauded the memorandum, saying, “It is not the place of government to determine what a person’s religion requires. The ability to live out your faith, or have no faith, is a First Amendment right; the federal government must honor that as much as possible, especially when there are reasonable accommodations.”

Michael Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “All Americans should have the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of government punishment. The guidance that the Trump administration issued today helps protect that First Amendment freedom.”

Sessions issued the guidance to implement a May executive order in which President Trump said his administration’s policy will be to enforce vigorously “robust protections for religious freedom” in federal law.

The memorandum should offer protection at the federal level for religious liberty in its growing confrontation with sexual liberty, especially regarding same-sex marriage and those who object to it on biblical grounds. It also signals an apparent return to the treatment of religious freedom prior to some controversial policies during the eight years of the Obama administration.

The attorney general released the guidelines the same day the Trump administration issued new rules to protect objectors to the abortion/contraception mandate instituted under President Obama. The expanded exemptions for conscience rights came after a six-year battle against a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation that required employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions.

The guidance on the HHS mandate — which was challenged in court by GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, four Baptist universities and nearly 90 other non-profit organizations — said the administration decided the government’s interest “in applying contraceptive coverage requirements to the plans of certain entities and individuals does not outweigh the sincerely held moral objections of those entities and individuals. ”

Sessions’ religious freedom guidance followed another significant memorandum from his office by two days — this one regarding protection of transgender employment rights.

In his Oct. 4 memorandum to U.S. attorneys, the attorney general announced he was withdrawing and reversing a 2014 guidance from then-Attorney General Eric Holder that ruled a federal ban on workplace sex discrimination encompasses gender identity. Title VII, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, “does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se. This is a conclusion of law, not policy,” Sessions said.

Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights decried Sessions’ memorandums on transgender rights and religious liberty.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), described the religious freedom guidance as “a sweeping license to discriminate.” He said it “will enable systematic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on [LGBT] people and their families.”

HRC is the country’s largest political organization for LGBT rights.

The 20 principles Sessions listed in his memorandum included six regarding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise. The principles on religious liberty included:

— “The freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.

— “Government may not target individuals or entities for special disabilities based on their religion.

— “RFRA does not permit the government to second-guess the reasonableness of a religious belief.

— “RFRA applies even where a religious adherent seeks an exemption from a legal obligation requiring the adherent to confer benefits on third parties.

— “Religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employer’s precepts.”

Andrew Walker, the ERLC’s director of policy studies, described the principles as “a historical reaffirmation of government’s posture toward religious liberty” and “a return to normalcy.” 

The Obama administration “went out of its way to undermine religious freedom to further the cause of the Sexual Revolution,” Walker wrote in a post at the ERLC’s website.

The attorney general’s religious freedom guidance is available to read at https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1001891/download?utm_ medium= email&utm_source=govdelivery.