Citing religious freedom, Trump backing off Obama-era rules

US President Donald Trump signs a document  in the Oval Office of the White House. (Jim Watson, AFP)
US President Donald Trump signs a document in the Oval Office of the White House. (Jim Watson, AFP)

Washington -  In a one-two punch elating religious conservatives, President Donald Trump's administration is allowing more employers to opt out of no-cost birth control for workers and issuing sweeping religious-freedom directions that could override many anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and others.

At a time when Trump finds himself embattled on many fronts, the two directives - issued almost simultaneously on Friday - demonstrated the president's eagerness to retain the loyalty of social conservatives who make up a key part of his base. Leaders of that constituency were exultant.

"President Trump is demonstrating his commitment to undoing the anti-faith policies of the previous administration and restoring true religious freedom," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

Liberal advocacy groups, including those supporting LGBT and reproductive rights, were outraged.

"The Trump administration is saying to employers, 'If you want to discriminate, we have your back'," said Fatima Goss Graves, president of National Women's Law Centre.

Her organisation is among several that are planning to challenge the birth-control rollback in court. The American Civil Liberties Union filed such a lawsuit less than three hours after the rules were issued.

"The Trump administration is forcing women to pay for their boss' religious beliefs," said ACLU senior staff attorney Brigitte Amiri. "We're filing this lawsuit because the federal government cannot authorise discrimination against women in the name of religion or otherwise."

The Democratic attorneys general of California and Massachusetts filed similar suits later on Friday.

'Despicable'

Both directives had been in the works for months, with activists on both sides of a culture war on edge about the timing and the details.

The religious-liberty directive, issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, instructs federal agencies to do as much as possible to accommodate those who claim their religious freedoms are being violated.

The guidance effectively lifts a burden from religious objectors to prove that their beliefs about marriage or other topics that affect various actions are sincerely held.

"Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law," Sessions wrote.

In what is likely to be one of the more contested aspects of the document, the Justice Department states that religious organisations can hire workers based on religious beliefs and an employee's willingness "to adhere to a code of conduct."

Many conservative Christian schools and faith-based agencies require employees to adhere to moral codes that ban sex outside marriage and same-sex relationships, among other behaviour.

The new policy on contraception, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, allows more categories of employers, including publicly traded companies, to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women by claiming religious or moral objections - another step in rolling back President Barack Obama's health care law that required most companies to cover birth control at no additional cost.

The top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said the birth-control rollback was despicable.

"This administration's contempt for women reaches a new low with this appalling decision to enable employers and health plans to deny women basic coverage for contraception," she said.

On the Republican side, however, House Speaker Paul Ryan welcomed the decision, calling it "a landmark day for religious liberty."


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