Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a tour of a Michigan meat-packing plant – Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released policy guidance clarifying that the agency will protect the right of employees of the agency, and of businesses that the agency inspects, to express opposition to homosexuality or same-sex marriage.
On a section of the USDA website titled “First Amendment and Religious Beliefs: Questions and Answers,” the USDA makes it clear that its Food Safety and Inspection Service will protect a person’s so-called “religious freedom,” including expressing “traditional” religious or moral beliefs opposing homosexuality, in the workplace.
“Opinions about same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual morality are all matters of public importance,” the guidance reads. “Moreover, people often have different perspectives on these topics, which are sometimes informed by their religious beliefs, and feel the need to discuss them. USDA respects the First Amendment rights of USDA personnel, as well as non-USDA personnel working at facilities inspected by USDA, to share their varying viewpoints on these topics, whether through oral discussion, the display or distribution of literature, or other means.”
The guidance comes after a conflict between USDA inspectors and the Vander Boon family, who owns the West Michigan Beef Company, a meat-packing facility in Hudsonville, Mich., with 45 employees.
Two years ago, inspectors objected to attempts by the family to place religious material expressing religious opposition to same-sex marriage in the plant’s breakroom, and threatened to take action if the Vander Boons didn’t comply.
The story made the rounds on conservative media, who accused the USDA, under the Obama administration, of violating the Vander Boon family’s First Amendment rights.
The decision to issue the guidance has earned praise from the conservative Family Research Council for allowing employees to speak openly about beliefs that oppose homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or transgenderism.
“I commend Secretary Perdue for correcting an injustice committed under the Obama administration against this family owned meatpacking business. We are pleased that the USDA is as committed to respecting the First Amendment as it is to food quality,” Travis Weber, the director of the Center for Religious Liberty at FRC, said in a statement.
“We thank President Trump who signed the executive order on religious freedom making clear that Americans, like the Vander Boons, don’t lose their religious freedoms upon entering the public square,” Weber added. “We are also grateful for Attorney General Jeff Sessions who is following through on the president’s executive order by putting federal government agencies on notice: you will not only respect the freedom of every American to believe but [the freedom to] live according to those beliefs.”
In response to an inquiry from Metro Weekly, a USDA spokeswoman referred to a statement issued in May by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that promises to protect the First Amendment rights of those like the Vander Boons. The spokeswoman said the agency would not comment further on the guidance.
A follow-up question clarifying how USDA plans to resolve conflicts in cases where an employee exercising their right crosses into harassing or creating a hostile work environment for a co-worker went unanswered.
“I want to reestablish this Department’s commitment to safeguarding every American’s First Amendment rights, particularly the right to free speech and the right to free religious exercise,” Perdue said in the May statement. “USDA is committed to protecting both. I expect each and every employe to uphold their fellow Americans’ First Amendment freedoms. Whether we are inspecting private businesses for compliance with food safety laws or protecting our public lands for recreation, cultivation, and preservation, we must set the example of our Nation’s highest ideals. Doing so is riot optional, and it is not discretionary: It is one of the crucial reasons why we exist.
“Freedom of expression flourishes in a climate of mutual respect and tolerance. To that end, USDA will continue to uproot and eliminate discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and ensure our employees and customers work in an atmosphere of dignity and equality-a place where the rules are known, respected, and fair to all,” Perdue concluded.
While it earned praise from conservative circles, LGBTQ advocates panned the new guidance, noting that supporters of the policy are conflating the right to practice one’s religion with the right to discriminate against people because of their failure to abide by another person’s moral and religious beliefs.
“If the USDA wants to create workplaces where employees can bring their best selves to work, that means protecting all employees — including LGBTQ people — from discrimination, not placing targets on the back of marginalized communities,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement.
“This new policy is a solution in search of a problem and can be used as a license to discriminate against others,” Ellis added. “From the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Justice, up to the Oval Office, President Trump and his administration are working around the clock to dismantle LGBTQ workplace protections and promote their agenda of hate.”