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. “Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people,” Sessions said in an Oct. 6 statement. “Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith. The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage.”
The memos were issued in response to an executive order signed by President Trump in May, declaring, “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom” and instructing the attorney general to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.”
Friday’s memos do not resolve specific cases currently in the court system. However, they were issued on the same day that the administration announced changes to the federal contraception mandate, allowing broad religious and moral exemptions to the regulation.
The first memo lists 20 principles of religious liberty that should govern all administrative agencies and executive departments in their work as employers, contract- and grant-makers, program administrators, rule-makers, and adjudicators. These principles recognize religious freedom as “an important, fundamental right,” expressly protected by the Constitution and by federal law. This freedom extends to both individuals and organizations, and it is not surrendered when Americans engage in the marketplace or interact with the government.
Furthermore, the guidance says, religious freedom is more than the right to worship or believe privately. It includes “the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in accordance with one’s beliefs.” The document notes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that the federal government may not substantially burden the exercise of religious freedom, unless there is a compelling state interest in doing so, and it is carried out in the least-restrictive manner possible.
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.”
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 cannot reasonably accommodate such observance or practice without undue hardship.”
Furthermore, the memo clarifies, religious employers are entitled to limit employment to people whose beliefs and conduct adhere to their religious precepts. “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. A second memo by the attorney general directs implementation of the guidance within the Department of Justice. It instructs the department to vigorously defend religious liberty protections in federal law.