Outlined in a 25-page memo (pdf), the directive lays out the White House’s “muscular view of religious freedom” first expressed in an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in May. The memo details 20 “principles of religious liberty” to which all federal agencies will be expected to adhere.
“Under the new policy, a claim of a violation of religious freedom would be enough to override concerns for the civil rights of LGBT people and anti-discrimination protections for women and others,” the Associated Press noted. “The guidelines are so sweeping that experts on religious liberty are calling them a legal powder-keg that could prompt wide-ranging lawsuits against the government.”
In crafting the policy guidance, the Department of Justice (DOJ) consulted extensively with “religious and political groups with a history of opposing protections for LGBT people,” but not “specifically” with any LGBTQ rights organizations, Buzzfeed reported on Friday.
Unsurprisingly, the DOJ’s directive was met with effusive praise by right-wing lawmakers and religious organizations, and fierce condemnation by civil rights groups that argue the Sessions memo constitutes little more than a “license to discriminate” against the LGBTQ community.
Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, said in a statement on Friday that the Sessions directive is a “blatant attempt to further Donald Trump’s cynical and hateful agenda.”
Justice Department policy as outlined in the new memo “will enable systemic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on LGBTQ people and their families,” Griffin concluded. “Donald Trump and [Vice President] Mike Pence have proven they will stop at nothing to target the LGBTQ community and drag our nation backwards. We will fight them every step of the way.”
HRC argued in its press release that the Sessions directive would allow:
- Federal contractors to deny services to LGBTQ people.
- “Agencies receiving federal funding, and even their individual staff members, [to] refuse to provide services to LGBTQ children in crisis, or to place adoptive or foster children with a same-sex couple or transgender couple simply because of who they are.”
- “A Social Security Administration employee [to] refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse.”
The new DOJ memo comes amid a flurry of policy moves by the Trump administration this week that will disproportionately affect women and the LGBTQ community, including a rollback of the federal birth control mandate and a reversal of government policy that protected transgender workers from discrimination.
In a statement on Friday, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, argued that the Sessions directive is “yet another mean-spirited attack against the LGBTQ community, people of color, and other minorities.
“Federal agencies, government contractors, and grant recipients should not be permitted to discriminate simply by citing a religious belief for doing so,” Gupta concluded. “We urge the federal courts to reject the radical efforts by this administration to justify discrimination on the basis of religion. We are strengthened as a nation when we work to protect and balance the rights and dignity of all.”