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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions issues “Religious Freedom” memo

On Friday, October 6, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a “guidance memo” interpreting the so-called “religious freedom” executive order signed by Donald Trump on May 4.  The 8-page memo (excluding appendices) outlines how this administration will interpret and prioritize claims of “religious freedom” in various situations.

Much of this language we have seen many times before.  In 2011, Kansas was the first state to introduce a “religious freedom” bill that would have rendered those municipal non-discrimination ordinances and school district policies inclusive of “sexual orientation and gender identity” unenforceable, and would have exposed cities and schools to litigation just by merely having such ordinances and policies in place.

Equality Kansas fought the 2011 bill to a standstill, and defeated similar attempts again in 2012, 2013, and 2014.  Sadly, in 2016 we were unable to block passage of a limited “religious freedom” measure allowing taxpayer-funded university groups to remove members based on religious beliefs. The language in Friday’s memo is in many respects similar, and in some places identical, to language that has been introduced in the Kansas Legislature.

On the surface, this memo appears to permit payments to religious schools by way of student vouchers, and it permits employers to deny reproductive health care benefits to employees, even when those employers are not religiously affiliated.  It also appears to open the door to payment of taxpayer funds to religious organizations in the form of grants and contracts previously unavailable to those organizations.

We have reviewed the language of this executive order carefully, and have reached out to the ACLU and other attorneys with whom we have worked in the past. We are unsure of the scope of this memo and what its ultimate impact on the treatment of LGBTQ* Americans might be.

It’s important to understand that it is presently legal in Kansas to fire, evict, or deny service based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  At present, only 18 states include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination laws, and three states include only sexual orientation.  There are a few Kansas cities, several school districts, and all state universities, that offer protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Based on prior “religious freedom” language we’ve seen in Kansas, and the language in Sessions’ order, the questions we are asking legal counsel are these:

  1. Will United States government, State of Kansas, or local government employees be able to deny service to taxpayers based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity?
  2. Will individual government employees be allowed to deny service to taxpayers, regardless of whether the government agency bans discrimination bases on sexual orientation and/or gender identity?
  3. Will employees of private companies be able to flout company non-discrimination policies and refuse service to their employer’s customers?
  4. Will Kansas cities, school districts, and state universities be left unable to enforce their local ordinances and policies?

Basically, how much worse can it possibly get for LGBTQ Kansans?

We will do our best to find the answers to these and other questions that arise.

Last year, Donald Trump promised LGBTQ Americans he would defend our rights.  Many LGBTQ Americans voted for him.  It now appears that promise will not be kept – instead, Trump has aligned his administration with the most hateful elements of the radical right.  Once again, we are being sold for campaign contributions.

See https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-sessions-issues-guidance-federal-law-protections-religious-liberty for the press release and full document.


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