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Sessions creates religious liberty panel

by Lisa Keen

Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Photo: Courtesy AP
Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Photo: Courtesy AP  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that he is creating a Religious Liberty Task Force and that the Department of Justice would "take potential burdens on one's conscience into consideration before we issue regulations or new policies."

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund was quick to say it considers the new task force "pandering" to religious right-wing conservatives, "aimed at empowering anti-LGBTQ discrimination and stripping away our recently won civil rights."

The task force announcement came in a speech Sessions gave July 30 at a Religious Liberty Summit hosted by the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

Sessions began his remarks by saying there was a "dangerous movement" afoot aimed at "eroding our great tradition of religious freedom."

"We have gotten to the point where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law; where ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit; and where one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them a 'hate group' on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs," he said.

Sessions said the task force would ensure that "all Justice Department components" are upholding the "guidance" he issued last October for applying religious liberty protections under federal law.

Sessions used language that many opponents of equal rights for LGBT people have used to express their objections to allowing same-sex couples to marry or to refuse service to LGBT people in public accommodations. But he did become specific at one point - referring to the "ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips."

Phillips is the Colorado baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple because he said his religious beliefs oppose such marriages. Phillips won a technical victory from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated hostility to Phillips' views on same-sex marriage. (The high court has not ruled on whether a business can refuse service to a person by claiming a religious belief that requires him or her to refuse service.)

In his speech, Sessions vowed that the department would go to court "across America to defend the rights of people of faith."

Sessions said the department's new task force would be co-chaired by Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Beth Williams, assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy.

The Human Rights Campaign said the new panel is part of the Trump administration's "ongoing campaign to license discrimination against LGBTQ people in the public square."

The Trump administration is not the first to create a "religious liberty" entity within the Department of Justice. The department under President George W. Bush promised to put a "priority" on "religious liberty and religious discrimination cases." But the Trump administration has probably taken more initiative than any other administration to strengthen religious liberty claims in a wide variety of arenas. In June, for instance, Sessions announced a "Place to Worship Initiative" to protect "the ability of houses of worship and other religious institutions to build, expand, buy, or rent facilities" and to obtain grants. The program would seem to put the Trump administration in opposition to equal rights for LGBT people in conflicts over religious entities refusing gay couples to serve as foster or adoptive parents, and conflicts where religious student groups want to use campus facilities but ban LGBT people from their meetings.

In January, the department released a revised manual for U.S. attorneys, directing all Justice Department lawyers to immediately inform and involve the associate attorney general about any lawsuit filed against the U.S. that raises "any significant question concerning religious liberty."

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