Does Religious Liberty Apply to All Religions?

Recently Attorney General Sessions released a memo on the subject of “Federal Law Protections of Religious Liberty” in which he outlined twenty principles of religious liberty.  The people who attended the Values Voter Summit last weekend hailed this as a major achievement, while many other expressed concern that it was nothing more than a license to discriminate, particularly against LGBT Americans.

What struck me are the assumptions that everyone made about this memo. That is because the words, “religious liberty” have come to mean something very specific in our current political climate. The truth is that, when people use that term, they most often don’t mean religious liberty, but the liberty of white evangelical Christians to both practice their religion and impose it on others. For example, Sessions should consider distinctions such as this:

But the most troubling thing that everyone has assumed is that religious liberty only applies to white evangelical Christians. I just googled a question about how many religions are practiced in this country. The top response tells me that its over 310. So do these principles of religious liberty apply to all of them? Or only to white evangelical Christians?

Take a minute to think about how AG Sessions would handle questions about whether or not these principles he enumerated apply to Muslims, or businesses owned by Muslims (much less the 140,000 Wiccan believers in this country).

The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.

Government may not restrict acts or abstentions because of the beliefs they display.

RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] does not permit the federal government to second-guess the reasonableness of a religious belief.

RFRA applies even where a religious adherent seeks an exemption from a legal obligation requiring the adherent to confer benefits on third parties.

Religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers’ religious precepts.

This is why it is possible that AG Sessions just opened up a whole bag of worms with this memo. Nowhere in the document is the word “religion” defined. As a matter of fact, in the appendix, this document seems to reach a lot farther than simply protecting religious practices.

The Free Exercise Clause protects beliefs rooted in religion, even if such beliefs are not mandated by a particular religious organization or shared among adherents of a particular religious tradition…

Importantly, the protection of the Free Exercise Clause also extends to acts undertaken in accordance with such sincerely-held beliefs.

So anyone who has a “sincerely-held belief,” even if it has no connection to a particular religious tradition, could make a claim of religious liberty. For example: “I have a sincerely-held belief that Republicans are idiots. Therefore, I will not hire them.” There is a part of me that hopes a lot of people outside of white evangelical Christians will joyfully lay claim to all the ways this document can be challenged.

But seriously, I never want to hear someone who applauds this memo complain about accommodations that are made for Muslims to practice their faith. If AG Sessions wants to write a memo outlining all the ways that he thinks white evangelical Christians have special rights in this country he should do so. Otherwise, I don’t think this memo about “religious liberty” means what a lot of people think it does.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.