Does a federal agency that endorses discrimination deserve to be called the “Justice Department?”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in announcing his creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force on Monday, made it clear that he believes Americans should be allowed to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community and anyone else who does not meet their approval.
Sessions and organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom are exploiting the misleading term “religious liberty” to advocate an “extreme agenda,” Baptist minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in an op-ed for NBC News. “It’s time for people who care about the future of democratic society to reclaim the concept of religious liberty,” he declared.
The Durham, N.C., preacher pointed out that “plenty of Americans still value the separation of church and state and, along with it, the establishment clause’s guarantee of freedom of conscience for all people.”
Wilson-Hartgrove recalled that in the past, “religious liberty” was the mantra of abolitionists, tax resisters, conscientious objectors and religious minorities. Now, the term is being used to dictate which restroom a person may use and whether a baker should have to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.
“When groups like the ADF talk about religious liberty, they are really talking about liberty for one specific religion — Christianity,” the minister wrote. “In this context, the phrase has become a rallying cry for Christian conservatives whose religious and political interests align around issues like reversing Roe v. Wade and rolling back LGBT protections.”
Sessions has turned to the ADF, a coalition that considers the United States a Christian nation, for advice in interpreting federal statutes. President Trump, when he announced Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 26, 2018, proclaimed: “No American — whether a nun, nurse, baker or business owner — should be forced to choose between the tenants [sic] of faith or adherence to the law.”
Early in his presidency, Trump wrote: “Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation. We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”
Sessions told reporters at Monday's Religious Liberty Summit in Washington, D.C., that the task force's job will be to “help the department fully implement our religious guidance.” He pledged to make “sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith.”
The nation's top law-enforcement officer warned that “a dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” adding: “There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated.”
In May 2017, Sessions sent a “religious liberty memorandum” to government agencies suggesting they should favor bigots over minorities. The task force, chaired by Associate Attorney Generals Jesse Panuccio and Beth Williams, is empowered to enforce the memo.
Sessions wrote: “Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law. Therefore, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting and programming.”
The memo encouraged not just government officials, but also ordinary Americans, “to invoke their faith to opt out of a range of federal rules and regulations when relevant,” according to The Atlantic. The news outlet reported that Sessions had “weakened the federal government’s ability to prevent gender and LGBT discrimination.”
Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Obama, wrote in a statement that “this guidance is designed to do one thing — create a license to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and others, sanctioned by the federal government and paid for by taxpayers.”
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin accused Trump of advancing a “cynical and hateful agenda.” When Sessions issued the memo, Griffin predicted that it would “enable systematic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on LGBTQ people and their families.”
The Health and Human Services Department responded to the memo by repealing contraceptive coverage from the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare), because some religious organizations oppose preventing pregnancy.
HHS officials cited Sessions' statement that the government must not “second-guess the determination of a religious employer that providing contraceptive coverage to its employees would make the employer complicit in wrongdoing in violation of the organization’s religious precepts.”
The administration “is forcing women to pay for their boss’s religious beliefs,” said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization maintains that removing the contraceptive-coverage mandate violates the Constitution’s religious-freedom and equal-protection guarantees.
One day before issuing the memo, Sessions reversed former Attorney General Eric Holder's order that instructed U.S. attorneys to cite the Civil Rights Act in prosecuting cases of gender-identity discrimination. Sessions determined that the law applies only to a person's “biological sex.”