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New religious freedom protections draw praise from experts

WASHINGTON | Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued sweeping guidance to executive branch agencies Friday on the Justice Department's interpretation of how the government should respect religious freedom, triggering an immediate backlash from civil liberties groups who asserted the nation's top law enforcement officer was trying to offer a license for discrimination.

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. Experts on religious liberty are saying Sessions' "guidance" will mostly likely prompt wide-ranging lawsuits against the government.

"This guidance will help protect families like the Vander Boons in MI who were threatened with the effective closure of their family-run business for simply expressing a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government".

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 is a signal to the rest of these agencies to rethink the protections they have put in place on sexual orientation and gender identity". "It is countenancing exercises of faith in a way that will harm other individuals".

However, LGBT activist groups have expressed concerns that Trump's religious freedom initiatives could allow companies and government agencies to legally discriminate under the guise of religious freedom. In fact, the Trump Administration has rolled back a measure that requires employer health insurance policies to cover birth control pill. Since then, religious conservatives have anxiously awaited the Justice Department guidance, hoping for greatly strengthened protections for their beliefs amid the rapid acceptance of LGBT rights. Although the executive order said nothing about LGBT issues, many feared handing that authority to Sessions would enable to him direct the government to discriminate against LGBT people.

Sessions plans to reinvigorate and expand the Project Safe Neighborhoods program to fight drug trafficking and violent crime in neighborhoods across the country, the Justice Department said.

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The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 ("RFRA") prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening any aspect of religious observance or practice, except in rare cases where the government has a compelling reason and there is not a less-restrictive option available.

"Although the application of the relevant protections may differ in different contexts, individuals and organizations do not give up their religious-liberty protections by providing or receiving social services, education or healthcare; by seeking to earn a living; by employing others to do the same; by receiving government grants or contracts; or by otherwise interacting with federal, state or local governments", the guidance explains. Its bold language highlights the crucial role of religious freedom in American life. "This license to discriminate is a stark reminder that states must do all they can to protect LGBTQ people by passing comprehensive nondiscrimination laws".

"A law that seeks to compel a private person's speech or expression contrary to his or her religious beliefs implicates both the freedoms of speech and free exercise", which Sessions wrote in the appendix, bolsters the argument of the baker who doesn't want to make a cake for a gay man or woman's birthday. But the new guidance, demonstrating the unsafe distortion of religious liberty by the Supreme Court's conservatives in the Hobby Lobby case, redefines "significant burden" to essentially cover being offended.

The Becket Fund, a religious freedom law firm that defended the Little Sisters of the Poor in court against the mandate, praised the "common sense, balanced rule", but added that the litigation is ongoing in mandate cases.

The Justice Department says the law as written does not apply to transgender people, but it would be up to Congress to make any changes to it.

The guidance also reiterates that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers covered by the regulation from discriminating based on an individual's religious belief, observance or practice, "unless the employer can not reasonably accommodate such observance or practice without undue hardship". "We urge the federal courts to reject the radical efforts by this administration to justify discrimination on the basis of religion".



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