Religious Freedom Rules Spark New Legal Fight in Culture War

Updated on
  • U.S. says new contraception policy protects religious freedom
  • Rights groups say Trump is targeting women’s health care

Sanders: Supreme Court Backs Contraceptive Mandate

The Trump administration ratcheted up America’s raging culture war with new rules letting employers opt out of providing health insurance that covers birth control and paving the way for religious businesses and employees to discriminate based on their closely held beliefs.

Hours after the U.S. government issued a rule Friday limiting the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to cover contraception costs for women, the American Civil Liberties Union fired back with a federal lawsuit in San Francisco seeking to block its implementation. The attorneys general of Massachusetts and California followed with similar suits. New York is considering its options.

Religious groups and social conservatives praised the development.

The new exemption “is a huge win for business and ministry leaders who, since 2013, have been fighting the government’s disregard for their religious beliefs and moral convictions,” said Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute -- a non-profit legal organization that describes itself as exclusively defending religious freedoms for all Americans.

“Now they can lead their organizations in good conscience without choosing between their convictions and obeying law,” he said.

The Justice Department also issued guidance instructing federal agencies to rewrite policies to be friendlier to religious employers and employees -- an elaboration on President Donald Trump’s May executive order.

Civil rights groups say they fear the broader set of religious-freedom rules will lead to widespread discrimination against women, religious minorities, gays and transgender Americans.

"Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to discriminate or harm others," Louise Melling, a deputy director at the ACLU, said in an emailed statement. "This guidance turns that understanding of religious freedom on its head."

U.S. Issues Religious Freedom Memo Giving Leeway in Hiring

Attorney General Jeff Sessions advised federal agencies to follow 20 principles of religious freedom, including a recognition that religious employers can discriminate in hiring. Lawsuits over the guidance may be a long way off, as the rules take effect and trickle down.

But the shift on contraception broadens an Obama-era religious exemption from providing such coverage to more for-profit corporations and others not included in an earlier workaround. It also permits employers to decide against offering contraception coverage for “moral,” rather than religious, reasons.

Trump had vowed to defend Christian Americans -- promising to bring the phrase “Merry Christmas” back to the forefront amid the perception that it has been supplanted with “Happy Holidays” or equivalents in recent years to reflect the U.S. multicultural population. Trump’s promise was popular with the large evangelical population in the country and helped propel him to victory.

“The president believes the freedom to practice one’s faith is a fundamental right in this country,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at a Friday news briefing. “The Supreme Court has validated this position.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the Justice Department’s guidance will unleash legal chaos and constitutional challenges as new policies are implemented. 

"This is a full out assault on the Establishment Clause," Gaylor said in a phone call from the group’s offices in Madison, Wisconsin. "The whole tone that the president and Sessions are setting is that religion gets a free pass to discriminate."

The National Women’s Law Center said Friday it would take legal action to block the rules, calling them “outrageous.” The attorney general of California also will sue, according to a statement issued after the directive was announced.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the contraception rule is unconstitutional because it allows the federal government to endorse certain religious beliefs over a woman’s right to make choices about her health care.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement that his office is reviewing the rules and is prepared to take action. He noted that he used to work in an abortion clinic when he was 17 years old, before abortion had been legalized nationally, and saw first hand the risks women face when they don’t have access to proper health care.

"We cannot allow the Trump administration to take us backwards -- because a woman who cannot control her own body is not truly free," Schneiderman said in the statement.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said 62 million American women have benefited from the contraception requirement under Obamacare.

"These anti-women’s health regulations prove once again that the Trump administration is willing to trample on people’s rights,” Becerra said in a statement. “What group of Americans will they target next?"

The ACA required employers to cover birth control and an array of other preventive health services with no out-of-pocket costs. The Obama administration had allowed some religious organizations to opt out of the contraceptive requirement, but religious groups said the measure didn’t go far enough.

“All Americans should have the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of government punishment," said Michael Farris, president of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing a Colorado baker who refused to custom design a cake for a gay wedding. He was sued over his refusal and the case is now before the Supreme Court.

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