Plans to give religious belief precedence over gay rights
President Donald Trump is considering how to allow Americans to opt out of complying with federal policies and regulations on the grounds of religion, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday, a move that critics said could open the door to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.
"There's clearly a lot of evidence in the last couple of years of the government coming in with regulations and policies that have, frankly, denied people the ability to live according to their faith," Mr Spicer said during his daily briefing.
"People should be able to practice their religion, express their religion, express areas of their faith without reprisal. I think that pendulum sometimes swings the other way, in the name of political correctness."
Mr Spicer's comments, which came on the same day Mr Trump told the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast that his administration "will do everything possible to defend and protect religious liberty in our land," could signal a sea change in how the federal government balances protections for gay, transgender and reproductive rights against individuals' religious objections.
Administration officials are considering a proposed executive order that would provide individuals and organisations wide latitude in denying services, employment and other benefits on the basis of their religious beliefs, though Mr Spicer emphasised that Mr Trump had no immediate plans to issue a directive on the issue.
"There are a lot of ideas that are being floated out," he said.
The proposal, titled 'Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom', is one of several dozen draft directives written on a range of topics by people within the administration, on the transition team or working for outside groups.
Mr Trump did not discuss any specific actions he might take at the National Prayer Breakfast, but said: "Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us." In the event that the order is actually issued, multiple groups are already preparing to challenge it on the grounds that it effectively sanctions discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, women and minorities.
While the draft document does not mention Christianity by name, it specifically outlines views held by conservative Christians - including opposition to abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the idea that a person's gender can differ from their anatomy - as beliefs deserving protection.
"It reads like a wishlist from some of the most radical anti-equality activists," Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said.
However, earlier this week, the White House issued a statement saying it would uphold a 2014 executive order barring discrimination against federal workers and employees of federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity after a different draft directive circulated that would have reversed the policy.