Could DOJ’s ‘religious freedom’ guidance give license to discriminate?

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Following yesterday's move to allow businesses to opt out of contraception coverage in employee healthcare plans, the Trump administration is now directing federal agencies to promote what it calls religious liberty but what critics call discrimination.

"Politico's" Josh Gerstein is covering this development and joins me now from Washington.

Let's break this down. This is much broader than just contraception coverage we heard a lot about yesterday.

JOSH GERSTEIN, REPORTER, POLITICO: Right. You're really talking about policies across the federal government. Some of them affecting things like even disaster relief. Some of the them affecting participation in elections, could also have an impact on LGBT rights, and the degree to which employers have to treat those members of the LGBT groups fairly.

So, it's something that could potentially impact a wide array of government programs, particularly when the government delivers those services directly, when you're talking about them using contractors, who either for-profit or nonprofit may now say they have religious concerns or moral concerns.

SREENIVASAN: Now, this isn't proposed legislation. It's going to have to make its way through Congress. It's a memo. But memos coming from the attorney general carry a weight.

GERSTEIN: Right. It's technically just legal guidance. It's not formally a directive or a policy, but it has a vey robust view of what is religious freedom, and as you said earlier, many people believe that it could effectively become a license to discriminate. You might have people who, say, work in a Social Security office and are responsible for arranging benefits who might say, you know, for religious reasons, I don't believe in gay marriage, so I don't want to deal with any gay couples that may come into the office seeking services.

SREENIVASAN: How does this effect, possibly, law enforcement? I mean, religious profiling, for example, could be shielded by the guidance that's being offered today.

GERSTEIN: I think it's fair to say President Trump certainly as a candidate was pretty tough on Muslims, and there was a big focus on terrorism and blaming Muslims for terrorism. But under this policy, there seems to be a very broad, kind of base — broad-based exception, or broad latitude given to religious views, so you might have a sect of followers of some particular tenet that might be very violent or very extreme, and you could see them trying to claim some sort of liberty under this particular policy and say, look, you know, just because I'm an adherent of some particular sect that might have a violent ideology, I haven't done anything or talked to anybody about anything, so you really should leave me alone."

SREENIVASAN: And a lot of folks saw this coming. The Family Research Council, they had a quote saying the president is demonstrating his commitment to undoing the anti-faith policies of the previous administration and restoring true religious freedom. And then you've got folks from the ACLU saying he could be making women pay for their boss's view.

GERSTEIN: Right. A number of people did see this coming for a while. We knew that this issue about contraception was hanging out there at the end of the Obama administration due to litigation that had been brought during the Obama era and the Trump folks are going to have to make a decision on it. Of course, in a sense, it's not surprising that they would say some employers can get out of Obamacare requirement, because the official policy of the Trump administration is that all employers should be able to get out of basically all their requirements of Obamacare.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Josh Gerstein of "Politico", joining us from Washington, D.C. –thanks so much.

GERSTEIN: Thanks, Hari. My pleasure.

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