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Study Raises Concerns About Federal Religious-Exemption Protections

An expert says while freedom of religion was meant to prevent government intrusion, those liberties have limits, especially when they infringe on the rights of others. (unitedchurchofchrist/Flickr)
An expert says while freedom of religion was meant to prevent government intrusion, those liberties have limits, especially when they infringe on the rights of others. (unitedchurchofchrist/Flickr)
April 9, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Trump administration guidelines allowing for what it calls religious exemptions have opened the door for discrimination across dozens of federal agencies and programs, according to a new report.

The guidelines limit enforcement of protections if government employees, or third parties that receive federal funds, decide not to provide services because they feel it goes against their religious beliefs. Study co-author Sharita Gruberg, associate director for the LGBT research and communications project at the Center for American Progress, said while freedom of religion is a core American value, her group's findings show the administration appears to be interested in securing those values only for a select few.

"Namely those who have more conservative viewpoints, that are anti-women's reproductive rights, anti-LGTBQ equality,” Gruberg said. “Those are the very particular religious viewpoints that have been elevated by this administration."

Gruberg said the guidelines, issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in October, already are having an impact. Last week, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson reversed a discrimination ruling, claiming a colonel's refusal to recognize the same-sex spouse of a retiring master sergeant was justified based on his religious views.

Gruberg said under the guidelines, hospital workers could refuse to provide emergency contraception to sexual assault survivors and government contractors could deny housing to LGBT youths, if it conflicted with their religious beliefs. She argued that freedom of religion was meant to prevent government intrusion, but pointed out those liberties have limits - especially when they infringe on the rights of others.

"And the problem with religious liberty as it's been interpreted by Jeff Sessions is that he's upholding religious viewpoints above other rights,” she said.

The report said the fact that the administration is prioritizing religious liberty doesn't necessarily mean it's legal. While some high-profile cases will be decided in court, Gruberg said it's also important for average Americans to sound the alarm if they experience discrimination.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - KY