If you don’t think it’s important that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) affirm our constitutional liberties, think again. All of our government officials should be committed to upholding the Constitution. When they shirk this duty, it has real-world consequences for our citizens.
That’s why it is so important – and such good news – that the USDA, under the direction of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, has taken steps to ensure that USDA personnel respect free speech and religious freedom. In fact, the USDA just recently issued guidance to help its employees understand the protections the First Amendment affords and their duty to protect those constitutional rights.
To understand the importance of this action, you need look no further than the story of Don Vander Boon, who owns West Michigan Beef Company.
You see, during President Obama’s administration, the USDA issued a policy prohibiting written or oral communications that USDA officials consider “disrespectful” or “insult[ing]” on the basis of sexual orientation or political belief – an overly broad standard waiting for misapplication.
Unsurprisingly, trouble followed. Shortly after the Supreme Court redefined marriage in 2015, Don noticed that multiple articles appearing on his company’s breakroom table celebrated the decision. He added one article that explained the religious belief that marriage is a special relationship between one man and one woman – a viewpoint that the Supreme Court acknowledged is held by people of “decent and honorable religious” beliefs.
But USDA officials found that viewpoint unacceptable. And they demanded that Don keep the article out of the breakroom, threatening to remove the USDA’s on-site inspectors if he refused. Because the presence of USDA inspectors is legally required for businesses like Don’s to operate, the threat imperiled Don’s business and the 45 people he employees.
Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to President Donald Trump earlier this year asking him to sign a religious liberty executive order to protect people of faith like Don and his family. President Trump signed an executive order shortly thereafter. The USDA followed his lead and decided to correct this overreach by recognizing Don’s right – and the right of others like him – to express their beliefs freely.
Secretary Perdue issued a policy statement emphasizing a commitment to “safeguarding every American’s First Amendment rights, particularly the right to free speech and the right to free religious exercise.” He explained that “each and every USDA employee” is responsible “to uphold their fellow Americans’ First Amendment freedoms,” even when “inspecting private businesses” like Don’s, and that this dedication to “our Nation’s highest ideals” is “not optional.” Subsequent guidance clarified that this duty extends to protecting the expression of opinions about marriage, which means that Don can once again enjoy his First Amendment right to express his views on that important topic.
We are thankful that President Trump signed the religious liberty executive order, and that the USDA has taken steps to implement it under Secretary Perdue’s leadership. ADF will continue to work to ensure that our constitutional liberties are respected at every level of government.
After all, the government should never be able to determine which viewpoints are acceptable, or punish religious individuals for holding a viewpoint that is different from the government’s.
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