Durbin: Does religious liberty guidance let fed workers & contractors refuse LGBT people?
Sessions: [4 second pause] I’ll get back to you. pic.twitter.com/E67XzDxh9e
— Dominic Holden (@dominicholden) October 18, 2017
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III appeared to signal that employees working for the federal government can use their self-professed religiosity as a way to deny benefits to LGBT individuals in testimony earlier today.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of a Justice Department Oversight Hearing, Sessions was pressed by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) as to his legal opinion about the compatibility of so-called religious liberty guidance emanating from the attorney general’s office and the obligations of federal employees who are hostile to LGBT rights.
Citing the guidance Sessions released to federal administrative agencies and executive departments–“Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty“–on the question of LGBT rights, Durbin asked the following question:
Could a Social Security Administration employee refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse?
Sessions paused, groaned, smirked, and then responded:
That’s something I never thought would arise, but I would have to give you a written answer to that–if you don’t mind?
Durbin replied that he would appreciate such a written response and then asked a similar question. He said, “Could a federal contractor refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people–including in emergencies–without risk of losing federal contracts.”
Again, Sessions demurred and said he’d need to look into it.
The Department of Justice noted Sessions’ issuance of the guidance earlier this month on October 6 via a press release, which included the following statement:
“Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people. It has protected both the freedom to worship and the freedom not to believe. Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith. The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage.”
The full memo contains 20 different guidelines or principles which serve to remind agencies of the administration’s approach to religious freedom. Page 2 of the 25-page memo contains the following provision:
The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs. The Free Exercise Clause protects not just the right to believe or the right to worship; it protects the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in accordance with one’s beliefs. Federal statutes, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”), support that protection, broadly defining the exercise of religion to encompass all aspects of observance and practice, whether or not central to, or required by, a particular religious faith.
Civil liberties groups assailed the Trump administration when it was released, claiming that the guidance was simply an attempt to allow government employees to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom.
The ACLU was one of those groups. They summed up the interchange between Durbin and Sessions as follows:
Attorney General Sessions just told Senator Durbin he can’t provide an answer on whether a Social Security employee can refuse to process a Social Security claim from an LGBT American related to their spouse.
— ACLU (@ACLU) October 18, 2017
[image via screengrab; video courtesy C-SPAN/Twitter]