US Attorney General Sessions issues federal memo reaffirming religious freedom

By Margaret Colson
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum Oct. 6 outlining 20 principles reaffirming the government’s commitment to religious liberty for all.

In the memo, Sessions, an Alabamian, wrote, “Religious liberty is a foundational principle of enduring importance in America, enshrined in our Constitution and other sources of federal law.” He instructed all federal agencies to accommodate religious observance and practice “to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law.”

The 25-page memo came in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order in May calling on Sessions to provide “guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law.”

Mixed response

Many, including Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hailed the memo for its interpretation of religious freedom. Moore described the memo as “a great development,” tweeting that the principles are “right in line” with the First Amendment.

The principles “represent a return to normalcy,” wrote Andrew Walker, ERLC director of policy studies. He emphasized that the principles do not “give preference or privilege to any one religion.”

Sen. James Lankford, a Southern Baptist, affirmed the memorandum and “the clarity it provides for a fundamental American right — religious freedom.” The Oklahoma Republican noted, “The ability to live out your faith, or have no faith, is an American right.”

Others, however, including Maggie Garrett of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, warned that the guidelines “serve as a blueprint for using religion to discriminate.” She wrote further, “Religious freedom is a fundamental value, but it does not allow religion to be used as an excuse to harm other people.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn, an ordained minister, agreed, describing the memo as a “roadmap for how to discriminate against most anyone, including women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities.”

A Baptist attorney specializing in church-state issues also expressed concern. Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, wrote, “In large part, the guidance restates much settled law, though with a decided tilt toward concerns of free exercise, giving short shrift to the government’s duty to avoid ‘no establishment’ concerns. In a couple of areas, the guidance will exacerbate controversy. The guidance treats complicated legal issues … in an overly simplistic way.”

Summary of memo

Sessions’ memo states:

• The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance, expressly protected by federal law.

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

• The freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.

• Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square or interacting with government.

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

• Government may not:

• Restrict acts or abstentions because of the beliefs they display.

• Target individuals or entities for special disabilities based on their religion.

• Target religious individuals or entities through discriminatory enforcement of neutral, generally applicable laws.

• Officially favor or disfavor particular religious groups.

• Interfere with the autonomy of a religious organization.

• As a general matter, condition receipt of a federal grant or contract on the effective relinquishment of a religious organization’s hiring exemptions or attributes of its religious character.

Also, six principles in the memo focus on the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.

The RFRA requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise.

The guidance also sets forth two principles related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stating that Title VII prohibits religious discrimination and that religious protections in Title VII extend to “discrimination on the basis of religious observance or practice as well as belief.”

One additional principle emphasizes that the Clinton Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace, issued in 1997, “provide useful examples for private employers of reasonable accommodations for religious observance and practice in the workplace.”


To read the memo in its entirety, go to