Pursuant to President Trump's religious liberties Executive Order in May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued interpretive guidance on federal religious liberty laws to federal agencies. Not only does this protect Americans' important First Amendment rights but it also promotes the rule of law by creating standards for consistent application of existing law across the Executive Branch.
Attorney General Sessions described twenty religious liberty principlesthat would be used in Executive Branch actions and summarized in detail the legal basis for these principles (citations omitted):
The people, acting through their Constitution, have singled out religious liberty as deserving of unique protection. In the original version of the Constitution, the people agreed that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." . . .
The Free Exercise Clause recognizes and guarantees Americans the "right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine [they] desire[ ]." Government may not attempt toregulate religious beliefs, compel religious beliefs, or punishreligious beliefs. . . . The Establishment Clause, too, protects religious liberty. It prohibits government from establishing a religion and coercing Americans to follow it. . . .
Finally, the Religious Test Clause, though rarely invoked, provides a critical guarantee to religious adherents that they may serve in American public life. The Clause reflects the judgment of the Framers that a diversity of religious viewpoints in government would enhance the liberty of all Americans.
In addition to the constitutional protections for religious liberty, Sessions summarized federal statutory protections, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Taken together with the cases, regulations, and Executive orders interpreting them, these form the basis for protection of religious liberty and the federal government has now been given clear guidance for applying these constitutional and statutory provisions. Sessions specifically directed the Department of Justice to take actions to implement the guidance, including review by the Office of Legal Policy of any rulemaking or agency action for conformity with the guidance and principles.
President Trump, through the expert assistance of Attorney General Sessions, is fulfilling his promise to "lead by example on religious liberty." Clarifying and enforcing existing laws is vital to preserving the rule of law, and the Trump-Sessions Department of Justice should be applauded for advancing the rule of law.