USDA beefs up protections for free speech, religious freedom
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued new policy guidance within its Food Safety and Inspection Service regarding freedom of speech and religion. The guidance removes the threat of a government-dictated shutdown of West Michigan Beef Company, a Grand Rapids–area meatpacking company owned by Donald and Ellen Vander Boon that employs 45 people, over religious literature on a breakroom table.
The threat of government closure of the Vander Boons’ business occurred after Don Vander Boon placed on his company’s breakroom table an article expressing the religious view that marriage is a special relationship between a man and a woman. A USDA food inspector removed the article from the table. Then, in an apparent enforcement action under a policy issued by the Obama administration, a USDA official threatened to remove all USDA inspectors from the premises if Don Vander Boon returned the article to the table. This was effectively a threat to close the Vander Boons’ business because federal law requires the presence of USDA inspectors for plant operations to continue.
“The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the freedom to believe and the freedom to express those beliefs without fear of being targeted by the government,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Samuel Green. “We commend the Trump administration for making clear that the unconstitutional religious and viewpoint discrimination against the Vander Boons at their own private family business will not be tolerated and for recommitting federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture to respecting the First Amendment freedoms of all Americans.”
ADF and allied attorney James Wierenga have been representing the Vander Boons and their family business in an effort to correct the unlawful government censorship of the Vander Boons’ religious views. The USDA resolved the matter by issuing a guidance memorandum and a list of frequently asked questions. The documents explain that the First Amendment “prevents the government from discriminating against individual viewpoints” and that USDA employees and people like the Vander Boons who own facilities the USDA inspects are free to exercise their freedom of speech, including speech relating to beliefs about marriage.
“I never would have imagined that the federal government would threaten to put me and my employees out of work because of religious literature on a breakroom table,” said Vander Boon. “My family and I seek to share God’s love and truth with others, and we’re thankful that the USDA is now recognizing our right and the right of other Americans to speak freely without facing government persecution.”
In February 2017, ADF President, CEO, and General Counsel Michael Farris wrote to President Trump asking him to remedy the Vander Boon situation and to work toward more fully protecting the religious freedom of Americans from federal overreach. In May, Trump signed an executive order that was a first step toward protecting religious liberty. Days later, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue issued a policy statement on the First Amendment, stating a “commitment to safeguarding every American’s First Amendment rights, particularly the right to free speech and the right to free religious exercise.” ADF then issued a statement urging Perdue to translate that commitment into practical relief for the Vander Boons and Americans like them.
In October, in advancement of the objectives laid out by the president’s executive order, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued guidance regarding religious liberty protections in federal law to be applied across all executive agencies and departments. Consisting of 20 principles, the guidance makes clear that “Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government.”
“Religious business owners shouldn’t be forced to choose between their faith and participation in the marketplace,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs. “The USDA not only threatened the Vander Boons’ livelihood over a piece of religious literature on a breakroom table, they also jeopardized the jobs of 45 other hardworking Americans. Secretary Perdue’s action to resolve this issue is another good sign that the Trump administration is taking free speech and religious freedom seriously.”
- Pronunciation guide: Wierenga (Weer-EN’-guh)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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