|1-15.200||Religious Liberty Litigation Coordinators|
|1-15.220||Approval, Notice, and Coordination Requirements for Religious Liberty Litigation|
|1-15.300||Principles of Religious Liberty|
1-15.100 - Background
To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, Department components and United States Attorneys’ Offices must reasonably accommodate religious observance and practice in all activities, including litigation. See 82 Fed Reg. 49668. As set forth below, the Office of the Associate Attorney General has supervisory responsibility for overseeing the Department’s respect for religious liberty in litigation.
1-15.200 - Religious Liberty Litigation Coordinators
Each litigating division should select a member of its front office and each United States Attorney’s Office should assign its Civil Chief, or his/her designee, to coordinate religious liberty litigation issues and to implement this section.
1-15.220 – Approval, Notice, and Coordination Requirements for Religious Liberty Litigation
Where feasible, litigating divisions and United States Attorneys’ Offices should rely on their designated religious liberty coordinators to facilitate the requirement that the Office of the Associate Attorney General be informed of religious liberty litigation in order to carry out its oversight responsibilities.
The notice, consultation, and approval activities described below should be carried out through the official assigned by the Office of the Associate Attorney General to coordinate religious liberty litigation handled by the Department.
- Notice of Religious Liberty Claims Against the United States. Litigating divisions and United States Attorneys’ Offices must inform the Office of the Associate Attorney General immediately upon receiving service of a suit filed against the United States raising any significant question concerning religious liberty, including claims under the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
- Coordination of Litigation. Decisions about merits arguments and significant litigation strategy questions in the cases described in paragraph A must be coordinated with the Office of the Associate Attorney General.
- Approval Requirement for Affirmative Civil Litigation that May Affect Religious Liberty Rights. The Associate Attorney General must approve any affirmative civil suit that impinges rights under the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses or RFRA, whether brought by a litigating division or by a United States Attorney’s Office. Moreover, United States Attorneys’ Offices and litigating divisions must notify the Office of the Associate Attorney General if defendants raise religious liberty defenses or objections to affirmative suits.
- Identification of Significant Religious Liberty Matters. The principles of religious liberty set forth in USAM 1-15.300 should guide determinations of whether a question concerning religious liberty exists or a right under the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses or RFRA may be affected.
- Notification Requirement for Affirmative Litigation Under Federal Civil Rights Statutes Barring Religious Discrimination and Protecting Religious Liberty. The Department enforces a number of civil rights statutes barring religious discrimination and protecting religious freedom, including broader civil rights statutes that include religion among the protected classes, such as Titles II, III, IV, and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, among others, as well as laws focused on protecting religious freedom, such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. These laws are enforced by the Civil Rights Division or by United States Attorneys’ Offices in coordination with the Civil Rights Division. When such civil rights suits involving religion are filed by the Department, the Civil Rights Division shall notify the official in the Office of the Associate Attorney General designated for coordinating religion-related matters.
1-15.300 - Principles of Religious Liberty
- The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance, expressly protected by federal law.
Religious liberty is enshrined in the text of our Constitution and in numerous federal statutes. It encompasses the right of all Americans to exercise their religion freely, without being coerced to join an established church or to satisfy a religious test as a qualification for public office. It also encompasses the right of all Americans to express their religious beliefs, subject to the same narrow limits that apply to all forms of speech. In the United States, the free exercise of religion is not a mere policy preference to be traded against other policy preferences. It is a fundamental right.
- The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one's religious beliefs.
The Free Exercise Clause protects not just the right to believe or the right to worship; it protects the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in accordance with one's beliefs. Federal statutes, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”), support that protection, broadly defining the exercise of religion to encompass all aspects of observance and practice, whether or not central to, or required by, a particular religious faith.
- The freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.
The Free Exercise Clause protects not just persons, but persons collectively exercising their religion through churches or other religious denominations, religious organizations, schools, private associations, and even businesses.
- Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government.
Constitutional protections for religious liberty are not conditioned upon the willingness of a religious person or organization to remain separate from civil society. Although the application of the relevant protections may differ in different contexts, individuals and organizations do not give up their religious-liberty protections by providing or receiving social services, education, or healthcare; by seeking to earn or earning a living; by employing others to do the same; by receiving government grants or contracts; or by otherwise interacting with federal, state, or local governments.
- Government may not restrict acts or abstentions because of the beliefs they display.
To avoid the very sort of religious persecution and intolerance that led to the founding of the United States, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution protects against government actions that target religious conduct. Except in rare circumstances, government may not treat the same conduct as lawful when undertaken for secular reasons but unlawful when undertaken for religious reasons. For example, government may not attempt to target religious persons or conduct by allowing the distribution of political leaflets in a park but forbidding the distribution of religious leaflets in the same park.
- Government may not target religious individuals or entities for special disabilities based on their religion.
Much as government may not restrict actions only because of religious belief, government may not target persons or individuals because of their religion. Government may not exclude religious organizations as such from secular aid programs, at least when the aid is not being used for explicitly religious activities such as worship or proselytization. For example, the Supreme Court has held that if government provides reimbursement for scrap tires to replace child playground surfaces, it may not deny participation in that program to religious schools. Nor may government deny religious schools—including schools whose curricula and activities include religious elements—the right to participate in a voucher program, so long as the aid reaches the schools through independent decisions of parents.
- Government may not target religious individuals or entities through discriminatory enforcement of neutral, generally applicable laws.
Although government generally may subject religious persons and organizations to neutral, generally applicable laws—e.g., across-the-board criminal prohibitions or certain time, place, and manner restrictions on speech—government may not apply such laws in a discriminatory way. For instance, the Internal Revenue Service may not enforce the Johnson Amendment—which prohibits 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from intervening in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate—against a religious non-profit organization under circumstances in which it would not enforce the amendment against a secular non-profit organization. Likewise, the National Park Service may not require religious groups to obtain permits to hand out fliers in a park if it does not require similarly situated secular groups to do so, and no federal agency tasked with issuing permits for land use may deny a permit to an Islamic Center seeking to build a mosque when the agency has granted, or would grant, a permit to similarly situated secular organizations or religious groups.
- Government may not officially favor or disfavor particular religious groups.
Together, the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause prohibit government from officially preferring one religious group to another. This principle of denominational neutrality means, for example, that government cannot selectively impose regulatory burdens on some denominations but not others. It likewise cannot favor some religious groups for participation in the Combined Federal Campaign over others based on the groups' religious beliefs.
- Government may not interfere with the autonomy of a religious organization.
Together, the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause also restrict governmental interference in intra-denominational disputes about doctrine, discipline, or qualifications for ministry or membership. For example, government may not impose its nondiscrimination rules to require Catholic seminaries or Orthodox Jewish yeshivas to accept female priests or rabbis.
- The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening any aspect of religious observance or practice, unless imposition of that burden on a particular religious adherent satisfies strict scrutiny.
RFRA prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion, unless the federal government demonstrates that application of such burden to the religious adherent is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest. RFRA applies to all actions by federal administrative agencies, including rulemaking, adjudication or other enforcement actions, and grant or contract distribution and administration.
- RFRA's protection extends not just to individuals, but also to organizations, associations, and at least some for-profit corporations.
RFRA protects the exercise of religion by individuals and by corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies. For example, the Supreme Court has held that Hobby Lobby, a closely held, for-profit corporation with more than 500 stores and 13,000 employees, is protected by RFRA.
- RFRA does not permit the federal government to second-guess the reasonableness of a religious belief.
RFRA applies to all sincerely held religious beliefs, whether or not central to, or mandated by, a particular religious organization or tradition. Religious adherents will often be required to draw lines in the application of their religious beliefs, and government is not competent to assess the reasonableness of such lines drawn, nor would it be appropriate for government to do so. Thus, for example, a government agency may not second-guess the determination of a factory worker that, consistent with his religious precepts, he can work on a line producing steel that might someday make its way into armaments but cannot work on a line producing the armaments themselves. Nor may the Department of Health and Human Services second-guess the determination of a religious employer that providing contraceptive coverage to its employees would make the employer complicit in wrongdoing in violation of the organization's religious precepts.
- A governmental action substantially burdens an exercise of religion under RFRA if it bans an aspect of an adherent's religious observance or practice, compels an act inconsistent with that observance or practice, or substantially pressures the adherent to modify such observance or practice.
Because the government cannot second-guess the reasonableness of a religious belief or the adherent's assessment of the religious connection between the government mandate and the underlying religious belief, the substantial burden test focuses on the extent of governmental compulsion involved. In general, a government action that bans an aspect of an adherent's religious observance or practice, compels an act inconsistent with that observance or practice, or substantially pressures the adherent to modify such observance or practice, will qualify as a substantial burden on the exercise of religion. For example, a Bureau of Prisons regulation that bans a devout Muslim from growing even a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs substantially burdens his religious practice. Likewise, a Department of Health and Human Services regulation requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptive drugs in violation of their religious beliefs or face significant fines substantially burdens their religious practice, and a law that conditions receipt of significant government benefits on willingness to work on Saturday substantially burdens the religious practice of those who, as a matter of religious observance or practice, do not work on that day. But a law that infringes, even severely, an aspect of an adherent's religious observance or practice that the adherent himself regards as unimportant or inconsequential imposes no substantial burden on that adherent. And a law that regulates only the government's internal affairs and does not involve any governmental compulsion on the religious adherent likewise imposes no substantial burden.
- The strict scrutiny standard applicable to RFRA is exceptionally demanding.
Once a religious adherent has identified a substantial burden on his or her religious belief, the federal government can impose that burden on the adherent only if it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest. Only those interests of the highest order can outweigh legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion, and such interests must be evaluated not in broad generalities but as applied to the particular adherent. Even if the federal government could show the necessary interest, it would also have to show that its chosen restriction on free exercise is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. That analysis requires the government to show that it cannot accommodate the religious adherent while achieving its interest through a viable alternative, which may include, in certain circumstances, expenditure of additional funds, modification of existing exemptions, or creation of a new program.
- RFRA applies even where a religious adherent seeks an exemption from a legal obligation requiring the adherent to confer benefits on third parties.
Although burdens imposed on third parties are relevant to RFRA analysis, the fact that an exemption would deprive a third party of a benefit does not categorically render an exemption unavailable. Once an adherent identifies a substantial burden on his or her religious exercise, RFRA requires the federal government to establish that denial of an accommodation or exemption to that adherent is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest.
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits covered employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their religion.
Employers covered by Title VII may not fail or refuse to hire, discharge, or discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of that individual's religion. Such employers also may not classify their employees or applicants in a way that would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities because of the individual's religion. This protection applies regardless of whether the individual is a member of a religious majority or minority. But the protection does not apply in the same way to religious employers, who have certain constitutional and statutory protections for religious hiring decisions.
- Title VII's protection extends to discrimination on the basis of religious observance or practice as well as belief, unless the employer cannot reasonably accommodate such observance or practice without undue hardship on the business.
Title VII defines “religion” broadly to include all aspects of religious observance or practice, except when an employer can establish that a particular aspect of such observance or practice cannot reasonably be accommodated without undue hardship to the business. For example, covered employers are required to adjust employee work schedules for Sabbath observance, religious holidays, and other religious observances, unless doing so would create an undue hardship, such as materially compromising operations or violating a collective bargaining agreement. Title VII might also require an employer to modify a no-head-coverings policy to allow a Jewish employee to wear a yarmulke or a Muslim employee to wear a headscarf. An employer who contends that it cannot reasonably accommodate a religious observance or practice must establish undue hardship on its business with specificity; it cannot rely on assumptions about hardships that might result from an accommodation.
- The Clinton Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace provide useful examples for private employers of reasonable accommodations for religious observance and practice in the workplace.
President Clinton issued Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace (“Clinton Guidelines”) explaining that federal employees may keep religious materials on their private desks and read them during breaks; discuss their religious views with other employees, subject to the same limitations as other forms of employee expression; display religious messages on clothing or wear religious medallions; and invite others to attend worship services at their churches, except to the extent that such speech becomes excessive or harassing. The Clinton Guidelines have the force of an Executive Order, and they also provide useful guidance to private employers about ways in which religious observance and practice can reasonably be accommodated in the workplace.
- Religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers' religious precepts.
Constitutional and statutory protections apply to certain religious hiring decisions. Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies—that is, entities that are organized for religious purposes and engage in activity consistent with, and in furtherance of, such purposes—have an express statutory exemption from Title VII's prohibition on religious discrimination in employment. Under that exemption, religious organizations may choose to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the organizations' religious precepts. For example, a Lutheran secondary school may choose to employ only practicing Lutherans, only practicing Christians, or only those willing to adhere to a code of conduct consistent with the precepts of the Lutheran community sponsoring the school. Indeed, even in the absence of the Title VII exemption, religious employers might be able to claim a similar right under RFRA or the Religion Clauses of the Constitution.
- As a general matter, the federal government may not 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.
Religious organizations are entitled to compete on equal footing for federal financial assistance used to support government programs. Such organizations generally may not be required to alter their religious character to participate in a government program, nor to cease engaging in explicitly religious activities outside the program, nor effectively to relinquish their federal statutory protections for religious hiring decisions.
See Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty, 82 Fed. Reg. 49668 (Oct. 26, 2017).
[updated April 2018]