CHRIS COATES reports on reaction to the Trump administration’s ‘religious liberties’ directive

Conservative evangelicals, reported The Daily Beast earlier this month, “handed Trump the presidency when they collectively, and organisationally, agreed to overlook his adultery, sexism, vulgarity, greed, dishonesty, and (to put it mildly) racially coded rhetoric in order to turn the Supreme Court against abortion and turn the government against LGBT people.”

The Guardian elaborated, saying the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, issued a sweeping directive that undercuts federal protections for LGBT people, telling agencies to do as much as possible to accommodate those who claim their religious freedoms are violated.

In response, one LGBT rights advocate called the directive a “licence to discriminate” and “an attack on the values of freedom and fairness that make this nation great”.

On the same day, the Trump administration issued a new rule that substantially undermines women’s access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act.

The Sessions directive, an attempt to deliver on Donald Trump’s pledge to evangelical supporters that he will protect religious liberties, effectively lifts a burden from religious objectors to prove their beliefs about marriage or other topics are sincerely held.

A claim of a violation of religious freedom will now be enough to override many anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, women and others.

The guidelines are so sweeping that experts on religious liberty called them a legal powder keg that could prompt wide-ranging lawsuits against the government.

“This is putting the world on notice: you better take these claims seriously,” Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the Associated Press. “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.”

Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation, said in a statement: “This licence to discriminate is an attack on the values of freedom and fairness that make this nation great. It opens the door for discrimination in the workplace and public services, flying in the face of the majority of Americans of whom over 70 percent believe laws should protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.

“The Trump administration’s ongoing attempts to undermine LGBTQ Americans’ ability to provide for themselves and their families without fear of discrimination highlights the urgent need for national non-discrimination protections, which are supported by the vast majority of Americans.”

Trump announced plans for the directive last May in a Rose Garden ceremony, surrounded by religious leaders. Since then, religious conservatives have awaited the justice department guidance, hoping for greatly strengthened protections for their beliefs amidst a rapid national acceptance of LGBT rights.

Religious liberty experts said they would have to see how the guidance would be applied by individual agencies, both in crafting regulations and deciding how to enforce them. But experts said the directive clearly tilted the balance very far in favour of people of faith who do not want to recognise same-sex marriage.

“Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law,” Sessions wrote. “To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity.”

The document lays the groundwork for legal positions the Trump administration intends to take in religious freedom cases, envisioning sweeping protections for faith-based beliefs and practices in private workplaces and government jobs and even in prisons.

In issuing the memo, Sessions, a deeply devout Methodist from Alabama, is injecting the department into a thicket of highly charged legal questions that have repeatedly reached the US supreme court, most notably in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case that said corporations with religious objections could opt out of a health law requirement to cover contraceptives for women.

An op-ed written by Adalia Woodbury for PoliticusUSA added: “The Sessions memo provides bigots with religious cover to deny services, employment, housing or healthcare to people they don’t like, under the pretence that such barbarity is sanctioned by God. It can also result in denial of treatment by doctors and denial of prescribed medication by pharmacists, under the pretense that this has anything to do with morality or religion . . .

“None of this is surprising to anyone who knew who Donald Trump is. It doesn’t surprise anyone with even a passing understanding of the belief systems that Trump’s coalition of racists, theocrats and fascists represent.

“The combination of drama, Orwellian policy, Trump’s latest comments and gestures are designed to shock, traumatize, overwhelm and envelope us in the darkness of authoritarianism.

“Knowing and understanding it matters. Resisting it matters more.”