Sessions’s “Religious Liberty Task Force” Sanctifies Discrimination

On July 30, at the Justice Department’s Religious Liberty Summit — organized by a Christian conservative legal outfit called the Alliance Defending Freedom — US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after consulting with the organization, announced the formation of a new “Religious Liberty Task Force,” one that many critics believe has less to do with broadly dealing with issues of religious freedom, and more to do with promoting the Christian right’s political and social agenda.

Christian Minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove described the Alliance as a “legal advocacy and organizing coalition for Christian nationalists that has been aggressive in pushing for a decidedly unequal definition of religious liberty.” With the Alliance and other anti-LGBTQ extremists in attendance, the setting for the announcement of the new task force could not have been more chillingly symbolic.

“By holding the summit under the auspices of the [Department of Justice (DOJ)] and allocating department officials to oversee the task force, Trump is once again telling the religious right that its concerns are his concerns,” said Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Wilson-Hartgrove agrees, adding that, “When groups like the [Alliance] talk about religious liberty, they are really talking about liberty for one specific religion — Christianity. 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.”

Will this new task force, roundly applauded by conservative Christian organizations, become a haven for right-wing homophobes and Islamophobes, and a safe place for right-wing dog-whistlers?

While mentioning an attack on a mosque in Texas, Sessions made no mention of the increased attacks on Muslims in this country, nor did he talk about racial slurs chanted by neo-Nazis, who in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were wearing swastikas and screaming, “Jews will not replace us.”

Sarah Warbelow, who is legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, maintained that the task force is a blatant attempt to turn back the clock on LGBTQ rights. “This taxpayer-funded task force is yet another example of the Trump-Pence White House and Jeff Sessions sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ people,” Warbelow said. “Over the last 18 months, Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions have engaged in a brazen campaign to erode and limit the rights of LGBTQ people in the name of religion. The Attorney General standing shoulder-to-shoulder this morning with anti-LGBTQ extremists tells you everything you need to know about what today’s announcement was really all about.”

Moreover, Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State thinks it’s unlikely Sessions’s new task force will pay any attention to the rising attacks on Muslims and Jews. In November of last year, Reuters reported that according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hate Crimes Statistics report, there were 6,121 hate crime incidents recorded in 2016, an almost 5 percent rise from 2015 and a 10 percent increase from 2014. Reuters reported that “About half the 1,273 incidents that involved religion were against Jews. Muslims were targeted in 307 religion-based crimes, up 19 percent from 2015 and double the number in 2014.”

A recent Voice of America story pointed out that “There were nearly twice as many anti-Arab incidents in 2015 and 2016 as were reported by the FBI, underscoring the shortcomings of official statistics at a time of rising hate crime in the country,” according to Underreported, Under Threat: Hate Crime in the United States and the Targeting of Arab Americans 1991-2016, a comprehensive report on hate crimes by the Arab American Institute Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC.

While media outlets often conflate the terms “Christian evangelicals,” “conservative Christians,” and “Christian fundamentalists,” there is basically no argument that a vast majority of white people that identify within those sectors — perhaps as high as 81 percent — voted for Donald Trump in 2016. To this day, they remain firmly entrenched within Camp Trump. And while there is nothing like the Jerry Falwell-run Moral Majority of the 1980s or the Pat Robertson-founded Christian Coalition of the 1990s to hold these groups together, broadly speaking, Christian right organizations have fully embraced political activism, and have special access to the White House, while individuals from the Christian right are firmly ensconced within the Trump administration. These organizations have also fully embraced a narrative that maintains that it is Christians who are the most persecuted and discriminated-against religious people in the country.

According to Boston, there was a “definite political dimension to this announcement.” It serves as a reminder to Christian right leaders that despite Trump’s moral lapses, he still has their back. With Trump’s base stagnating but nevertheless remaining loyal, the announcement, at the very least, “is a simple political payoff.”

Several days after the task force was formed, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington, DC-based “family values” lobbying group, issued an email challenge to Congress while soliciting donations from supporters “to get behind policies that would protect the right of Christians and faith-based organizations to dissent from agreeing with same-sex marriage without getting fined, fired, penalized, or otherwise punished.”

But Boston points to Perkins’s and other religious leaders’ political hypocrisy, telling Truthout:

We all know about Trump’s moral lapses, his untruthfulness, his coarse behavior and his proclivity to sell the country out to the Russians…. If a Democratic president were doing these things, religious right leaders like Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed and others would be yelling about it around the clock. Trump has bought them off by giving them policies they support. The religious right never occupied much moral high ground, but what little they did have they long ago abandoned in their quest to be apostles of Trump.”

Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio — who, according to The Advocate, supported Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in California — and the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, Beth Williams, will head the task force, which seeks to implement President Trump’s religious liberty guidance.

During the announcement, Sessions told the press that the task force will uphold the president’s guidance in cases the DOJ brings and defends, and in “the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt and how we conduct our operations.” He went on to describe the US’s cultural climate as becoming “less hospitable to people of faith in recent years,” and said, “Many Americans have felt their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

Sessions went further, saying, “We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives. We’ve seen US senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about dogma — even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office.” Sessions also talked about the case of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who took his case to the Supreme Court after he was found to have violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

According to Boston, speakers at the summit made their goals clear: to use a “twisted” definition of religious freedom as the rationale for denying LGBTQ people the right to foster or adopt children, to cut off women’s access to birth control and to give for-profit businesses the right to refuse service to same-sex couples. There is no subtlety in the task force’s approach, he argued. “The agenda is there for everyone to see.”