Among the most striking parts of the memo is the determination that the federal government and its agencies may not second-guess “the reasonableness of a religious belief.” Therefore, according to the document, the Department of Health and Human Services could not question whether an employer’s religious beliefs would be actually violated if it had to provide contraceptive coverage to a worker, even if opposition to contraception is not formally part of the employer’s religious doctrine. Also notable is the document’s final point, which states that religious organizations must compete “on equal footing” for federal financial assistance, regardless of their hiring practices. This also means that religious schools can compete for and receive school vouchers. (It also reiterates the Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer earlier this year, which found that a Lutheran school’s playground should be allowed to receive public funds for renovation).
Central to the document is a narrow interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the 1993 law that found new interest after the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, allowing evangelical Christian-run craft supply chain Hobby Lobby to deny its employees coverage for contraception, including emergency contraception, otherwise known as Plan B. In that case, the Supreme Court interpreted the RFRA as broadly as possible, setting the precedent for religious freedom to function virtually unchecked. The document frequently name-checks the RFRA to support the legality of its claims.