WASHINGTON -- A sweeping new statement by the Justice Department calls religious freedom a "fundamental right of paramount importance," placing the Trump administration squarely on the side of religious conservatives in America's culture wars.
The statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with a long legal analysis by the department's lawyers, is intended to be guidance to the rest of the federal government on how to decide conflicts involving declarations of religious belief -- for example, the recent case involving a baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple's wedding. The Justice Department already has intervened in that case on the side of the baker.
The statement released Friday makes clear that, in Sessions' view, the benefit of the doubt should go to the person declaring a religious belief over those claiming illegal discrimination.
"Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with federal law," the statement reads.
Justice Department officials say the analysis was produced to follow up on President Donald Trump's executive order on religious freedom in May, and they say it sets no new policies and isn't directly related to any pending legal dispute.
But the impact of the new stance became clear Friday when the administration said it would allow more employers to cite religious objections to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women uncovered by company health care plans.
It expanded a religious exemption that previously applied to houses of worship, religiously affiliated nonprofit groups and closely held private companies.
"Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people," Sessions said. "It has protected both the freedom to worship and the freedom not to believe."
In his May order, Trump instructed the IRS to avoid prosecuting churches for engaging in politics -- a law that was rarely enforced.
The new order was drafted after consultation with a broad spectrum of religious and civil rights groups, the Justice Department said.
Many of the current conflicts in the religious sphere concern civil rights for lesbians, gays and transgender people -- for instance, whether religious organizations can refuse to employ people because of their sexual identification. Federal law says that is permitted, the memo says.
Sessions, a deeply conservative former senator from Alabama, has already rolled back other gay-friendly policies.
Earlier this week he issued a memo that reverses an Obama-era policy that found that transgender people are entitled to protection against discrimination in the workplace. Sessions said the civil rights law does not mention questions of gender identity, so the legal protections don't apply.
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