Make no mistake: The Trump administration is a Christian right administration.
Justifiably, Trump’s personal and political antics are often the focus of media attention, but last week was the greatest policy setback for women and LGBT people in America in a decade, as the Trump administration quietly unleashed a barrage of executive actions on the eve of a three-day weekend, and the most anti-LGBT law in the country took effect in Mississippi.
Most of the actions came in the guise of “religious exemptions,” which are depicted by the right as protections for religious people who only want to practice their religion in peace. In fact, however, the only religious practice they cover is discrimination against others.
Now, what could such a religious objection be? Where in the Bible does it say that your business must not employ any gay people? Doesn’t the Bible actually say that he who is without sin should cast the first stone—i.e., don’t judge another person’s behavior?
Of course, no court in America is going to ask those questions. Nor should it—we don’t want secular courts telling people what their religion says and doesn’t say. But the end result is that “religious freedom” can be used by anyone to discriminate against whomever they wish.
The most significant of last week’s attacks was the legal guidance (PDF) on religious liberty issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who despite apparently lying under oath and being called “very weak” and “very unfair” by Trump, is still attorney general, and still implementing the extreme right-wing views which he has held for decades.
In addition to several thousand words of hand-waving on the importance of religious liberty—which no one, of course, disputes—the guidance takes the most pro-right-wing and anti-women/anti-LGBT interpretation of the constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). As a result, the federal government will not prosecute religious organizations for discriminating in the hiring and firing of employees (even those whose work has nothing to do with religion, from hospital janitors to cafeteria cooks), will not take action against businesses who turn way gay customers (or anyone else), and will allow government-funded adoption and foster agencies to refuse to place children with gay families.
Those, of course, are just three examples of a government-wide policy to favor conservative religious claims over civil rights.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, issued a statement with several examples of how this plays out in practice. “The guidance is meant to ‘protect’ the anti-LGBTQ child welfare worker who is opposed to placing young people in foster care with a lesbian couple. It is meant to ‘protect’ the transphobic shelter worker who refuses to give a transgender person a place to sleep for the night… It’s meant to ‘protect’ the pharmacist who wants to make decisions for others and refuses to administer birth control. The list goes on.”
Indeed, tracking the impact of the Sessions memo will be difficult, because it will be implemented by thousands of decisions not to enforce civil rights laws against fundamentalist Christians who have decided to opt out of them.
Religious freedom didn’t used to mean this. For 220 years, the First Amendment meant that the government can’t police your religious beliefs and practices. It never used to mean that you can use those beliefs to take away someone else’s rights.
But just after they did after desegregation became the law of the land, Christian fundamentalists are asking to be exempted from following the same laws as everyone else. And Jeff Sessions has just exempted them.
The second major blow against civil rights last week came in the form of an “interim final rule” issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, establishing a broad religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employee insurance plans include contraception coverage.
Now, if your employer has a “religious or moral objection,” you have to pay for your own damn birth control.
Interestingly, the contraception rollback is slightly more limited than the federal contracting rollback, because it is only applicable to private companies, not publicly traded ones. That’s to keep the rule in line with the Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that privately held companies had their own religious beliefs, but didn’t reach the question of whether publicly traded companies did as well.
Of course, that distinction doesn’t matter to Kate Rochat, a student at Notre Dame University and now a plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the action. “No woman should ever be denied health care because her employer or university’s religious views are prioritized over her serious medical needs,” Rochat said in a statement.
And then there was Attorney General Sessions’ new policy that the Department of Justice actively oppose any attempt to use Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, to cover discrimination against transgender people. This is a 180-degree reversal from the Obama administration, which had filed suit on behalf of a transgender plaintiff.
While the anti-transgender policy does not explicitly mention religion, it does conform to the suspicious coincidence that the social policies targeted by the new administration just so happen to affect women, LGBT people, marriage, sexual orientation, sexual choice, and gender identity.
What a coincidence: the same culture war issues that the Christian right has been fighting for years, and that Sessions himself has talked about in secret sessions with Christian right organizations, are now bearing the brunt of this attack.
It’s no secret why this is happening. Conservative evangelicals handed Trump the presidency when they collectively, and organizationally, agreed to overlook his adultery, sexism, vulgarity, greed, dishonesty, and (to put it mildly) racially coded rhetoric in order to turn the Supreme Court against abortion and turn the government against LGBT people.
Well, it’s payback time.
And while the Trump administration may be synonymous, for moderates and progressives, with Russian meddling, warmongering, immigrant bashing, Muslim bashing, attacks on the press, a wild and unstable leader, unprecedented vulgarity, corruption, and fear in general, it’s important not to lose track of the fact that it is also an administration of the extreme Christian right.
Of course, if you’re female, gay, or trans, maybe you know that already. Because you have a lot less freedom than you had last week.