US Justice Department Privileges Rights of Believers
On January 31 the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an update to the United States Attorneys’ Manual—a new section titled “Associate Attorney General’s Approval and Notice Requirements for Issues Implicating Religious Liberty”—and directed the designation of a religious liberty point of contact for each of the ninety-three US Attorney’s offices. The Trump administration continues to display support for loopholing protections from discrimination under the cloak of so-called religious liberty.
Now with the mandate of religious liberty czars, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doubling down on efforts to privilege the rights of the religious to discriminate in the public square. This manual update is merely the latest move in a series of steps to defend the religious against secular laws. This calculated mission was made very apparent in speaking points published online from a speech Sessions gave at the Alliance Defending Freedom “Summit on Religious Liberty” on July 11, 2017.
In all of this litigation and debate, this Department of Justice will never allow this secular government of ours to demand that sincere religious beliefs be abandoned. We will not require American citizens to give intellectual assent to doctrines that are contrary to their religious beliefs.
Then in October, Sessions issued a guidance memorandum to all executive offices for the purpose of protecting religious liberty. The memorandum is curiously both wide-ranging and ambiguous. The twenty points further the goal of providing strategy for legalizing discrimination on the grounds of a person’s or organization’s religious liberty.
In fact, the issuing of the memorandum was preceded by the DOJ intervening in a religious liberty case. Lawyers under Sessions argued in a brief to the US Supreme Court that a Christian baker had a fundamental right to deny a gay couple a cake for their wedding by virtue of the First Amendment (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission). Here, the Trump administration demonstrated its goal of undermining the current recognition of nationwide marriage equality and equal access for LGBTQ people on the grounds of religious liberty.
The Trump administration also created a new division of the Office of Civil Rights, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, which allows healthcare workers to refuse treatment to LGBTQ people or women seeking abortions if it conflicts with their own religious convictions.
In response to the changes to the US Attorney’s Manual update, Allison Gill, legal and policy director at American Atheists, articulated her concern, stating: “This is a breathtaking expansion of religious privilege in the DOJ…These policy changes significantly undermine the rule of law and favor religious beliefs at the expense of nondiscrimination and equal protection.”
Echoing those sentiments, AA President David Silverman said, “[r]equiring the approval of religious political appointees before enforcing the law is something I would expect to see in a theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but I’m rapidly losing any sense of shock and surprise at the lengths this administration will go to impose the beliefs of religious extremists on all Americans.”
The Attorney General’s lack of neutrality in the treatment of matters concerning religious rights is ill-advised. The population of non-religious Americans continues to increase. “Nowhere in Sessions’ religious liberty update does he address the right to freedom from religion in our public institutions,” notes American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt. “He’s forgetting to defend the rights of all Americans.”