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Jeff Sessions issues sweeping directive affirming religious liberty

(Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein)U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions looks on during a news conference announcing the takedown of the dark web marketplace AlphaBay, at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., July 20, 2017.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has issued a directive that provides religious protections for individuals, businesses, churches and other organizations when their beliefs come into conflict with government regulations.

The directive was issued on Friday in response to President Donald Trump's May executive order that called on the Department of Justice to issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law and guide all agencies in compliance.

"Except in the narrowest of circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law," Session stated in the directive, according to USA Today.

"To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government action, including employment, contracting and programming," the attorney general added.

The guidance stresses that federal agencies may not exclude religious organizations from grant programs for activities unrelated to their worship, and explicitly states that private businesses are also entitled to the same religious protections that are provided to churches.

"Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people," Session stated.

"It has protected both the freedom to worship and the freedom not to believe. Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith. The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage," he continued.

The 25-page document also states that the Internal Revenue Service may not enforce the Johnson Amendment, which bars non-profits from taking part in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate, in cases involving a religious non-profit when the same activity would not be enforced against a secular organization.

According to ABC News, Sessions consulted with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal advocacy group that champions conservative Christian causes, before issuing the guidance to all federal agencies on Friday.

The ADF is currently representing Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who is currently challenging the state's nondiscrimination protections at the U.S. Supreme Court after he was found guilty of violating the law for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012.

David Dinielli, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center's LGBT Rights Project, said that the group's apparent relationship with Sessions could be an indication of the group's growing influence in the new administration.

Some LGBT advocates have expressed concern that the new guidance would undermine sexual orientation discrimination protections, under the guise of affirming religious liberty.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin and the first openly gay U.S. Senator, said he fears that the new guidance was not aimed at helping federal agencies comply with the law, but rather "give them greater leeway to condone discrimination against LGBTQ people, women and others."

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