Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

A Win for Freedom: USDA Issues New Guidance to Protect First Amendment Rights


This article is part of a series focusing on Lens of Liberty, a project of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

In a Liberty Minute entitled “Less Free,” Helen Krieble discusses the results of a poll which show that most Americans feel that their freedom is increasingly compromised as an effect of living under the grasp of powerful governmental bodies:

In a recent national survey, a majority of Americans said they felt less free than they were five years ago. Only 13 percent said they felt freer than before. It is so troubling that so many Americans fear the growing power of government over every aspect of their lives, but it is even more troubling that so many people think they can’t do anything about it.

Defending our freedom and passing it along to the next generation undiminished is the first responsibility of citizenship. We the people are the keepers of our own rights, not the government. We must look through the lens of liberty at every act of government and when our freedom is threatened, we must act and tell the government, no, not on our watch. Then we can leave the next generation more free, not less.

In this column, I usually write about specific examples of laws and regulations which curb freedom and leave Americans feeling the way they reported in the survey. However, we often get so bogged down and feel so defeated by these attacks on freedom that we sometimes neglect to take notice of the victories for freedom that are occurring all around us. Be they pivotal legal battles or incremental private lawsuits, each plays an important role in fighting against oppressive government.

There are countless freedom-loving Americans who, like Krieble encourages, fight the government rather than sit idly by while their freedoms are taken from out from under them. These champions of freedom ought to be acknowledged and praised for their victories.

This week, I want to focus on a particular victory for the cause of freedom that occurred on Monday when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its new guidance on the topic of “First Amendment and Religious Beliefs.” In Q&A format, the new guidelines address the department’s nondiscrimination policy, explicitly applying it to religious beliefs:

Does the Secretary’s First Amendment Policy encompass speech regarding same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual morality?

Opinions about same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual morality are all matters of public importance. 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.

This pledge that the USDA will respect First Amendment rights resolves the two-year-old case of Don Vander Boon, the owner of West Michigan Beef Company, whose business was threatened by USDA inspectors who found an article promoting heterosexual marriage mixed in with others on the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case in the company’s breakroom.

Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been representing Don and his wife Ellen, released a statement in May expressing its hope that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue would soon “correct this injustice for the Vander Boons”:

Alliance Defending Freedom is encouraged that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has issued a policy statement declaring his commitment to protect ‘the right to free speech and the right to free religious exercise’ for Americans who interact with the USDA. We are hopeful that this commitment will translate into immediate relief for our clients, Donald and Ellen Vander Boon, who are facing ongoing censorship of their religious speech at the hands of USDA officials. It is a grave injustice when the government forces Americans like the Vander Boons to choose between running a business and expressing their religious beliefs. Secretary Perdue can act now to correct this injustice for the Vander Boons and Americans like them who work with the USDA, and we hope that he will.

These new guidelines put into writing what the Vander Boons and their legal counsel have been hoping for. Travis Weber, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, also praised the USDA, and in particular Secretary Perdue, for its new guidance:

I commend Secretary Perdue for correcting an injustice committed under the Obama administration against this family owned meatpacking business. We thank President Trump who signed the executive order on religious freedom making clear that Americans … don’t lose their religious freedoms upon entering the public square.

It is courageous citizens like the Vander Boons and upright government officials like Secretary Perdue who ought to be applauded for taking seriously their duty which Krieble emphasizes to “leave the next generation more free, not less.”

Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Terry Schilling

Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.

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