The same day the Trump administration rolled back the federal mandate for employers to include birth control coverage in their health insurance plan and vastly expanded exemptions for companies and people citing religious or moral objections, a key player in the Obama administration Justice Department arrived in North Carolina.
Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2014 until this past January, was expecting changes to some of the work that she and the former president had done on voting rights, criminal justice reforms, LGBT protections and combating discrimination in education, employment, housing and lending.
On Friday, hours before she was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s 10th anniversary celebration, Gupta was critical of the sweeping guidance issued on Friday by Jeff Sessions, the U.S. attorney general since Feb. 9.
In a memorandum titled “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty,” Sessions articulated principles about religious freedom and what that means for the U.S. government, saying that freedom of religion extends to people and organizations. “Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law,” Sessions wrote.
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The guidance also suggests that religious employers are allowed to hire only those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs.
One part of the memo that riled Gupta, who recently became president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was how Sessions justified rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate.
“This is a direct attack on women’s rights,” Gupta said in a statement. “The Trump administration is using the guise of religious liberty to carry out their ideological agenda to deprive women of basic reproductive health care.”
Gupta said in a recent telephone interview that while she has been disappointed by many of the actions of the Trump justice department under Sessions – such as abandoning its challenge to a Texas law requiring voter ID, and changes to interpretations of whether federal anti-discrimination law protects transgender people – she has not lost heart.
North Carolina, she says, is an example of why.
Though the Obama administration Justice Department sued the state over its 2013 elections law overhaul that included a voter ID provision and more recently over House Bill 2, which since has been repealed, there is much to be proud of in this state.
“North Carolina has been kind of a crucible for civil rights in the last several years,” Gupta said, underscoring the work of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which challenged the elections law in court, and the Rev. William J. Barber II, whose Moral Monday protests gained national attention. “I actually think it’s been a really important state and barometer for civil rights in the country.”
Gupta recalled standing by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in May 2016, when the Justice Department took legal action against North Carolina when HB2 was still on the books. Lynch, a native North Carolinian, looked into the camera at the announcement and offered words of solace and encouragement to transgender residents who had been restricted to using government-building bathrooms that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificates.
“Some of you have lived freely for decades,” Lynch said. “Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
Gupta described the rollbacks of the Trump administration as giving her a sense of “whiplash.” She spoke briefly of other concerns she had about August’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and racial tensions.
“There is such a heightened-level assault on civil rights across our country,” Gupta said.
“The history of this country has never been linear,” Gupta said. “The only way that progress has ever been forged in this country is that people have refused to give up. The people in North Carolina that believe in justice and fairness need to press forward. People need to make their voices heard.”