ACLU Sues Federal Government for Religious Liberty Documents

The ACLU sued four federal agencies demanding the release of documents regarding religious liberty exemptions to nondiscrimination laws.
Image: President Trump signs signing an executive order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty
President Donald Trump is flanked by clergy members after signing an executive order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Harden at the White House, on May 4, 2017 in Washington.Mark Wilson / Getty Images file
By Mary Emily O'Hara

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday against the federal government, demanding the release of documents that may pertain to the Trump administration's plans for new religious freedom rules — policies the ACLU says could sanction widespread discrimination.

Specifically, the lawsuit asks for the "release of agency records related to potential religious exemptions from generally applicable nondiscrimination requirements in federally funded programs."

Trump is flanked by clergy members after signing an executive order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty at the White House, on May 4, 2017, in Washington.Mark Wilson / Getty Images file

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, names the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor, and Treasury specifically in the records request.

In March, the ACLU submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to all four agencies, asking them to share any documents relating to a draft executive order — leaked in late January — that would have sanctioned religiously motivated discrimination against LGBTQ people, unmarried heterosexual couples, single mothers, and more. The agencies have not respond to the FOIAs, and now the ACLU is suing to pressure them to release the requested records.

"The administration hasn’t been shy in saying it wants to broaden people’s ability to discriminate based on religious beliefs," ACLU attorney Joshua Block told NBC News on Thursday. "We’re just trying to find out how it’s planning to go about that."

Related: Health Department May Revise Obamacare Nondiscrimination Rule

Although the January leak of the draft executive order was never signed by President Trump, it caused widespread panic among LGBTQ advocates. Then-White House Deputy Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told NBC News in January that an order directly impacting the LGBTQ community "isn't the plan at this time."

But even after controversy surrounding the leaked draft died down, the Trump administration continued to state support for increased religious freedom protections. In May, President Trump signed the Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty executive order, which allows churches to take part in political fundraising and expands "regulatory relief" for companies that object to insurance coverage of contraceptives.

Related: Sessions Tells ‘Hate Group’ DOJ Will Issue Religious Freedom Guidance

Other actions by the administration have caused LGBTQ advocates to worry that anti-discrimination protections are slowly being dismantled. In March, Trump revoked an Obama-era order that required companies with federal contracts to comply with nondiscrimination laws, a move that left LGBTQ and other employees vulnerable. Then in May, the Department of Health and Human Services signaled it would revise its nondiscrimination rule, potentially reversing protections for transgender people and women seeking abortions.

Earlier in July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech to conservative Christian law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, a traditionally anti-LGBTQ firm that was designated a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Sessions alarmed LGBTQ advocates by announcing new Justice Department plans to push forward religious liberty policy.

Related: White House: LGBTQ Executive Order ‘Isn’t the Plan at This Time

"The president has also directed me to issue guidance on how to apply federal religious liberty protections," Sessions said in the July 11 speech. "The department is finalizing this guidance, and I will soon issue it."

For the ACLU, that's warning enough. Now the civil rights group wants the federal administration to show its hand and confirm whether it is planning religious liberty guidance that would impact non-discrimination laws.

"What’s clear in the months since then is the administration is exploring different means of accomplishing the same results — the guidance Sessions is promising for the Justice Department, new regulations for the Health Department, across the board," said Block. "The public should be able to know who’s driving this."

NBC News requested comments from the departments of Health, Labor, or Treasury and did not receive replies. A Department of Justice spokesperson said they had no updates to provide on the issue.