Friday, October 6, 2017
Attorney General Jeff Sessions today released a memo for all executive departments and agencies on Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty. The document contains 20 "principles of religious liberty" that "should be understood and interpreted in light of the legal analysis set forth in the appendix to this memorandum."
The document came out the same day as HHS's new interim final rules that employers more leeway to object on religious grounds to the Obamacare "contraceptive mandate."
The HHS rules may well predict how we might expect the government to implement AG Sessions's principles. The principles themselves largely rehearse existing law (but emphasizing and tilting toward free exercise), but may open the door to policies (like HHS's new rules) that lean toward religion.
The principles hit on several lightning rods in recent religion debates, including the "contraception mandate," IRS treatment of religious non-profits, abortion, and religious organizations' participation in government contracting and aid programs.
The Appendix on Free Exercise spells out the position on generally applicable laws, stating that "even a neutral, generally applicable law is subject to strict scrutiny under this Clause if it restricts the free exercise of religion and another constitutionally protected liberty, such as the freedom of speech or association, or the right to control the upbringing of ones' children." The provision goes on merely to describe Supreme Court cases in this area, but the language could support a position that laws prohibiting discrimination by sexual orientation are unconstitutional--the exact position DOJ took in Masterpiece Cake. It's not clear under the principles how far the government might extend this argument.
As to government contracting and aid programs, the Appendix on the Establishment Clause gives a flavor of the overall orientation of the document--restating existing law, with a decided tilt toward religion, leaving us to wait and see just how far these principles will extend. Here's that portion in full (citations omitted):
The Establishment Clause, too, protects religious liberty. It prohibits government from establishing a religion and coercing Americans to follow it. It restricts government from interfering in the internal governance or ecclesiastical decisions of a religious organization. And it prohibits government from officially favoring or disfavoring particular religious groups as such or officially advocating particular religious points of view. Indeed, "a significant factor in upholding governmental programs in the face of Establishment Clause attack is their neutrality towards religion." That "guarantee of neutrality is respected, not offended, when the government, following neutral criteria and evenhanded policies, extends benefits to recipients whose ideologies and viewpoints, including religious ones, are broad and diverse." Thus, religious adherents and organizations may, like nonreligious adherents and organizations, receive indirect financial aid through independent choice, or, in certain circumstances, direct financial aid through a secular-aid program.