Department of Justice Steps Up to Protect Religious Liberty
Attorney General Jeff Session’s Department of Justice has assumed an important leadership role in protecting and promoting religious freedom here at home, giving the cause for religious liberty renewed vigor.
Last October, in response to an executive order on religious liberty, the Department issued a “20 principles” guidance to all executive departments and agencies setting forth federal legal protections for religious liberty.
According to this guidance:
Religious liberty is not merely a right to personal religious beliefs or even to worship in a sacred place. It also encompasses religious observance and practice. Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.
The guidance highlights a variety of protections provided by federal laws including the strict scrutiny over federal actions that substantially burdens religious observance as well as workplace accommodations for religious practice.
But if the laws are so clear, why is there a need for executive orders and Justice Department involvement?
According to Sessions, “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.” What movement is he referring to?
A preschool was barred from competing in a state grant program to resurface its playground simply because the school is run by a church. Christian pregnancy centers have been mandated to promote state programs offering low-cost or free abortions. The Little Sisters of the Poor were forced to offer employees insurance that covered services that violated their conscience.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court has ruled in all these cases that such government-led affronts to the free exercise of religion or free speech cannot stand. Yet the attacks continue.
Local zoning authorities have kept Orthodox Jews in New Jersey and Hindus in Maryland from purchasing land to build houses of worship. The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., was not allowed to place on metro buses its Christmas advertisements encouraging charity to those in need.
The Department of Justice has stepped in to file legal briefs in support of these groups. Yet the attacks continue.
Most recently, the city of Philadelphia pulled its contract with Catholic Social Services, its longtime partner in placing foster children in loving homes, because of the center’s commitment to placing children in homes with a married father and mother. At a time when the need for foster families is increasing, barring one of the most trusted and successful foster placement services because of their beliefs not only violates the conscience rights of those at Catholic Social Services, it also keeps needy children from finding loving homes.
None of these groups seeks preferential treatment. They only want to be treated fairly or offered accommodations for their sincerely held religious beliefs and so continue contributing to the good of others.
The nation’s top law enforcement officer understands that fundamental rights must be safeguarded. Earlier this week, at the Religious Liberty Summit sponsored by the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a religious freedom task force. The task force, according to Sessions, is charged with ensuring the Justice Department is upholding the administration's guidance “in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations.”
Such attention to religion freedom is a boon for the civil rights community. The Justice Department’s criminal prosecution of perpetrators of hate crimes against centers of worship or people of faith, civil suits against zoning authorities trying to prevent the construction of houses of worship, “friend of the court” briefs in support of individuals and religious groups suffering discrimination — all of these actions serve to vindicate one of America’s most precious freedoms.
In closing remarks at the summit, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford applauded their work, noting: “You are not creating new policy for Americans. You are protecting a very old policy.” Defending and promoting religious liberty is an essential American ideal; thankfully for all Americans, Jeff Sessions and his Justice Department are committed to safeguarding our country’s first freedom.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.