AG directive protects religious objectors to LGBT rights

Published: Friday, October 06, 2017 @ 11:32 AM
Updated: Friday, October 06, 2017 @ 11:30 AM


            FILE - In this May 4, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. In an order that undercuts federal protections for LGBT people, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping directive to agencies Friday to do as much as possible to accommodate those who claim their religious freedoms are being violated. Trump announced plans for the directive last May in a Rose Garden ceremony where he was surrounded by religious leaders. Since then, religious conservatives have anxiously awaited the Justice Department guidance. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
FILE - In this May 4, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. In an order that undercuts federal protections for LGBT people, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping directive to agencies Friday to do as much as possible to accommodate those who claim their religious freedoms are being violated. Trump announced plans for the directive last May in a Rose Garden ceremony where he was surrounded by religious leaders. Since then, religious conservatives have anxiously awaited the Justice Department guidance. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In an order that undercuts protections for LGBT people, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping directive to agencies Friday to do as much as possible to accommodate those who say their religious freedoms are being violated.

The guidance, an attempt to deliver on President Donald Trump's pledge to his evangelical and other religious supporters, effectively lifts a burden from religious objectors to prove that their beliefs about marriage or other topics are sincerely held.

Under the new policy, a claim of a violation of religious freedom would be enough to override concerns for the civil rights of LGBT people and anti-discrimination protections for women and others. The guidelines are so sweeping that experts on religious liberty are calling 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," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "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."

Trump announced plans for the directive last May in a Rose Garden ceremony where he was surrounded by religious leaders. Since then, religious conservatives have anxiously awaited the Justice Department guidance, hoping for greatly strengthened protections for their beliefs amid the rapid 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 favor of people of faith who do not want to recognize 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 Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm, called it "a great day for religious freedom." The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights group, called the guidelines an "all-out assault" on civil rights and a "sweeping license to discriminate."

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

In issuing the memo, Sessions is injecting the department into a thicket of highly charged legal questions that have repeatedly reached the U.S. 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.

The memo makes clear the Justice Department's support of that opinion in noting that the primary religious freedom law — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 — protects the rights not only of people to worship as they choose but also of corporations, companies and private firms.

In what is likely to be one of the more contested aspects of the document, the Justice Department states that religious organizations can hire workers based on religious beliefs and an employee's willingness "to adhere to a code of conduct." Many conservative Christian schools and faith-based agencies require employees to adhere to moral codes that ban sex outside marriage and same-sex relationships, among other behavior.

The document also says the government improperly infringes on individuals' religious liberty by banning an aspect of their practice or by forcing them to take an action that contradicts their faith. As an example, Justice Department lawyers say government efforts to require employers to provide contraceptives to their workers "substantially burdens their religious practice." Separately Friday, the Health and Human Services Department allowed more employers with religious objections to opt out of the birth control coverage rule in the Affordable Care Act.

Session's directive affirms Trump's earlier directive to the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which bars churches and tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates. The policy has only rarely been enforced in the past.

The department's civil rights division will now be involved in reviewing all agency actions to make sure they don't conflict with federal law regarding religious liberty. Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, in a statement lauding Trump, said his group has set up a hotline for federal employees and others who feel they've faced discrimination over their religious beliefs.

___

Zoll reported from New York.

George W. Bush warns 'bigotry seems emboldened' in America: Read his full remarks

Published: Thursday, October 19, 2017 @ 2:37 PM

George W. Bush Speaks In New York

Former President George W. Bush warned Americans to be wary of growing trends toward nativism and isolationism on Thursday during a speech at the Bush Institute’s national forum.

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“Bigotry seems emboldened,” Bush said. “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.”

The speech was widely interpreted as a veiled message aimed at the politics of President Donald Trump, who has often touted an “America first” view of world politics. However, Trump was not named in the speech.

Read Bush’s full remarks from the forum, “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, in the World”:

Thank you all. Thank you. Ok, Padilla gracias. So, I painted Ramon. I wish you were still standing here. It’s a face only a mother could love – no, it’s a fabulous face. (Laughter.) I love you Ramon, thank you very much for being here.

And, Grace Jo thank you for your testimony. And, big Tim. I got to know Tim as a result of Presidential Leadership Scholars at the Bush Center along with the Clinton Foundation, with help from 41 and LBJ’s libraries.

I am thrilled that friends of ours from Afghanistan, China, North Korea, and Venezuela are here as well. These are people who have experienced the absence of freedom and they know what it’s like and they know there is a better alternative to tyranny.

Laura and I are thrilled that the Bush Center supporters are here. Bernie (Tom Bernstein), I want to thank you and your committee. I call him Bernie. (Laughter.)

It’s amazing to have Secretary Albright share the stage with Condi and Ambassador Haley. For those of you that kind of take things for granted, that’s a big deal. (Laughter and applause) Thank you.

We are gathered in the cause of liberty this is a unique moment. The great democracies face new and serious threats – yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence. Economic, political and national security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.

Since World War II, America has encouraged and benefited from the global advance of free markets, from the strength of democratic alliances, and from the advance of free societies. At one level, this has been a raw calculation of interest. The 20th century featured some of the worst horrors of history because dictators committed them. Free nations are less likely to threaten and fight each other.

And free trade helped make America into a global economic power.

For more than 70 years, the presidents of both parties believed that American security and prosperity were directly tied to the success of freedom in the world. And they knew that the success depended, in large part, on U.S. leadership. This mission came naturally, because it expressed the DNA of American idealism.

We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future. We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity. We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just and the weak are valued. And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.

This is not to underestimate the historical obstacles to the development of democratic institutions and a democratic culture. Such problems nearly destroyed our country – and that should encourage a spirit of humility and a patience with others. Freedom is not merely a political menu option, or a foreign policy fad; it should be the defining commitment of our country, and the hope of the world.

That appeal is proved not just by the content of people’s hopes, but a noteworthy hypocrisy: No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies. Democracy remains the definition of political legitimacy. That has not changed, and that will not change.

Yet for years, challenges have been gathering to the principles we hold dear. And, we must take them seriously. Some of these problems are external and obvious. Here in New York City, you know the threat of terrorism all too well. It is being fought even now on distant frontiers and in the hidden world of intelligence and surveillance. There is the frightening, evolving threat of nuclear proliferation and outlaw regimes. And there is an aggressive challenge by Russia and China to the norms and rules of the global order – proposed revisions that always seem to involve less respect for the rights of free nations and less freedom for the individual.

These matters would be difficult under any circumstances. They are further complicated by a trend in western countries away from global engagement and democratic confidence. Parts of Europe have developed an identity crisis. We have seen insolvency, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, anger about immigration, resurgent ethno-nationalism, and deep questions about the meaning and durability of the European Union.

America is not immune from these trends. In recent decades, public confidence in our institutions has declined. Our governing class has often been paralyzed in the face of obvious and pressing needs. The American dream of upward mobility seems out of reach for some who feel left behind in a changing economy. Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.

There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young, who never experienced the galvanizing moral clarity of the Cold War, or never focused on the ruin of entire nations by socialist central planning. Some have called this “democratic deconsolidation.” Really, it seems to be a combination of weariness, frayed tempers, and forgetfulness.

We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

In all these ways, we need to recall and recover our own identity. Americans have a great advantage: To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.

This is part of the reason we meet here today. How do we begin to encourage a new, 21st century American consensus on behalf of democratic freedom and free markets? That’s the question I posed to scholars at the Bush Institute. That is what Pete Wehner and Tom Melia, who are with us today, have answered with “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World,” a Call to Action paper.

The recommendations come in broad categories. Here they are: First, America must harden its own defenses. Our country must show resolve and resilience in the face of external attacks on our democracy. And that begins with confronting a new era of cyber threats.

America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms. Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed. But foreign aggressions – including cyber-attacks, disinformation and financial influence – should not be downplayed or tolerated. This is a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home. We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our electoral system from subversion.

The second category of recommendations concerns the projection of American leadership – maintaining America’s role in sustaining and defending an international order rooted in freedom and free markets. 

Our security and prosperity are only found in wise, sustained, global engagement: In the cultivation of new markets for American goods. In the confrontation of security challenges before they fully materialize and arrive on our shores. In the fostering of global health and development as alternatives to suffering and resentment. In the attraction of talent, energy and enterprise from all over the world. In serving as a shining hope for refugees and a voice for dissidents, human rights defenders, and the oppressed.

We should not be blind to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalization. People are hurting. They are angry. And, they are frustrated. We must hear them and help them. But we can’t wish globalization away, any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution. One strength of free societies is their ability to adapt to economic and social disruptions.

And that should be our goal: to prepare American workers for new opportunities, to care in practical, empowering ways for those who may feel left behind. The first step should be to enact policies that encourage robust economic growth by unlocking the potential of the private sector, and for unleashing the creativity and compassion of this country.

A third focus of this document is strengthening democratic citizenship. And here we must put particular emphasis on the values and views of the young.

Our identity as a nation – unlike many other nations – is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. We become the heirs of Thomas Jefferson by accepting the ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence. We become the heirs of James Madison by understanding the genius and values of the U.S. Constitution. We become the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. (Applause.)

And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.

We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools. And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

Finally, the Call to Action calls on the major institutions of our democracy, public and private, to consciously and urgently attend to the problem of declining trust.

For example, our democracy needs a media that is transparent, accurate and fair. Our democracy needs religious institutions that demonstrate integrity and champion civil discourse. Our democracy needs institutions of higher learning that are examples of truth and free expression.

In short, it is time for American institutions to step up and provide cultural and moral leadership for this nation.

Ten years ago, I attended a Conference on Democracy and Security in Prague. The goal was to put human rights and human freedom at the center of our relationships with repressive governments. The Prague Charter, signed by champions of liberty Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky, Jose Maria Aznar, called for the isolation and ostracism of regimes that suppress peaceful opponents by threats or violence.

Little did we know that, a decade later, a crisis of confidence would be developing within the core democracies, making the message of freedom more inhibited and wavering. Little did we know that repressive governments would be undertaking a major effort to encourage division in western societies and to undermine the legitimacy of elections.

Repressive rivals, along with skeptics here at home, misunderstand something important. It is the great advantage of free societies that we creatively adapt to challenges, without the direction of some central authority. Self-correction is the secret strength of freedom. We are a nation with a history of resilience and a genius for renewal.

Right now, one of our worst national problems is a deficit of confidence. But the cause of freedom justifies all our faith and effort. It still inspires men and women in the darkest corners of the world, and it will inspire a rising generation. The American spirit does not say, “We shall manage,” or “We shall make the best of it.” It says, “We shall overcome.” And that is exactly what we will do, with the help of God and one another.

Thank you.

Trump nominates Kirstjen Nielsen for Homeland Security secretary

Published: Thursday, October 12, 2017 @ 2:49 PM

In this Aug. 22, 2017 photo, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen speak together as they walk across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. President Donald Trump nominated Kirstjen Nielsen as his next Secretary of Homeland Security. Nielsen was former DHS Secretary John Kelly’s deputy when he served in that role and moved with Kelly to the White House when he was tapped to be Trump’s chief of staff.   (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik/AP
In this Aug. 22, 2017 photo, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen speak together as they walk across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. President Donald Trump nominated Kirstjen Nielsen as his next Secretary of Homeland Security. Nielsen was former DHS Secretary John Kelly’s deputy when he served in that role and moved with Kelly to the White House when he was tapped to be Trump’s chief of staff. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)(Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Donald Trump on Thursday nominated White House Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen as his Homeland Security secretary.

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“It’s hard to imagine a more qualified candidate for this critical position,” Trump said.

Trump threatens network's license after report he wanted to expand nuclear arsenal

Published: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 @ 2:20 PM

In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Evan Vucci/AP
In this Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)(Evan Vucci/AP)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday suggested that he might challenge the licenses of TV networks that are critical of him, pointing to reports that he has categorized as “fake news.”

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The suggestion was made on Twitter after NBC News reported early Wednesday that the president wanted to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal tenfold over the summer and suggested as much in a meeting with high-ranking national security officials.

The comment was made during a July 20 meeting that included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to NBC News.

During the meeting, the president was shown a slide that depicted the decrease in U.S. nuclear weapons that started in the late 1960s, the news station reported.

>> Related: Trump suggests his IQ is higher than Tillerson's after reported 'moron' jab

“Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve,” NBC News reported, adding that those present were surprised by the request. “Officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the buildup.”

After the meeting, NBC News reported, Tillerson was heard calling the president a “moron,” a remark that the president has called “totally phony.” The State Department last week denied that Tillerson called Trump a moron, although the secretary declined to deny the report himself.

>> Related: Tillerson slams reports he considered resigning, called Trump a 'moron'

Trump denied on Wednesday afternoon that he ever suggested the United States increase its nuclear arsenal.

“I never said that,” he said during a news briefing with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Right now we have so many nuclear weapons I want them in perfect condition, perfect state. ... It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and someone should look into it.”

His comments Wednesday afternoon echoed ones he made earlier in the day on Twitter.

“Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a ‘tenfold’ increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal,” Trump wrote. “Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!”

He followed with a second tweet calling NBC News “bad for (the) country.”

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?” Trump wrote. “Bad for country!”

The president’s suggestion is unlikely to do much to ease his frustrations. The Los Angeles Times reported that NBC and other networks don’t hold licenses that cover their entire networks. Instead, licenses are issued to local stations.

“Under deregulatory measures that Republicans successfully pushed over the past generation, challenging a license on the grounds that coverage is unfair or biased would be extremely difficult,” the newspaper reported.

It’s not the first time Trump has threatened news organizations that are critical of him.

During the race for the White House and again in March, Trump suggested that it might be worth loosening libel laws in order to make it easier for people to challenge inaccurate stories, Bloomberg News reported.

Last week, the president asked in a tweet why the Senate Intelligence Committee was not looking at American media companies.

Tillerson Denies Reports He Considered Resigning, Called Trump a ‘Moron’

Trump suggests his IQ is higher than Tillerson's after reported 'moron' jab

Published: Tuesday, October 10, 2017 @ 11:23 AM
Updated: Tuesday, October 10, 2017 @ 3:55 PM

Tillerson Denies Reports He Considered Resigning, Called Trump a ‘Moron’

Update, 3:55 p.m. ET, Oct. 10: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said President Donald Trump was joking when he implied during an interview with Forbes magazine last week that he was smarter than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“The president certainly never implied that the secretary of State was not intelligent,” Sanders said Tuesday during a news briefing. “He made a joke. Nothing more than that.”

The secretary of state and president met for lunch on Tuesday and "had a great visit," Sanders said.

Trump told reporters on Tuesday that he continued to have confidence in Tillerson.

Original report: President Donald Trump said last week that he would test higher than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson if the two were to take IQ tests after the top U.S. diplomat reportedly called his boss a “moron.”

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Trump made the claim Friday in an interview with Forbes magazine, days after NBC News first reported that Tillerson called the president a “moron” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon. The Forbes interview was published online Tuesday.

“I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests,” Trump told Forbes magazine. “I can tell you who is going to win.”

The rising tension between Trump and Tillerson was highlighted last week after NBC News reported that Tillerson considered resigning over the summer after Trump delivered a politically charged speech to the Boy Scouts of America at their annual Jamboree. The head of the Boy Scouts later apologized for Trump's remarks.

Tillerson denied he ever considered resigning at a news conference last week, but did not deny calling the president a moron, instead categorizing the situation as petty.

>> Related: Tillerson slams reports he considered resigning, called Trump a 'moron'

“This is what I don’t understand about Washington,” Tillerson said on Wednesday. “I’m not from this place, but where I come from, we don’t deal with that petty nonsense.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert later denied the report, saying that Tillerson “does not use that language to speak about anyone.”

Several other news outlets subsequently confirmed the NBC News report, including The Washington Post and CNN.

Still, Trump claimed last week that the report was fabricated.

"It was fake news, it was a totally phony story," Trump said on Wednesday. "It was made up by NBC. They just made it up."

He added that he has "total confidence in Rex."

Tillerson, 65, has served as secretary of state since shortly after Trump took office in January. Before assuming office on Feb. 1, Tillerson worked as chairman and chief executive officer of oil and gas giant ExxonMobil.

Tillerson Denies Reports He Considered Resigning, Called Trump a ‘Moron’