Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a religious liberty task force on Monday tasked with directing government agencies on how to better accommodate people of faith.
“This administration is animated by that same American view that has led us for 242 years: that every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith in the public square,” Sessions claimed in comments delivered at a Religious Liberty Summit held by the Department of Justice.
“This approach has served this country well,” he added. “We are perhaps the most religiously developed nation in the world and can take pride in respecting all people as they fully exercise their faiths.”
In October 2017, Sessions and President Donald Trump issued a 25-page memo outlining 20 key principles of so-called “religious freedom” the White House called upon federal authorities to uphold, including “the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.”
The Attorney General claimed the task force would assist the Trump administration in following through on that promise by developing “litigation, policy, and legislation to protect and promote religious liberty.”
“We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives,” Sessions claimed. “We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about dogma — even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office. We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips.”
Phillips, the Colorado baker who fought at the Supreme Court for his right to refuse service to gay weddings, spoke alongside Sessions on Monday. After turning away couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins in 2012, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled the Masterpiece Cakeshop owner had violated the state’s nondiscrimination laws — a decision which was later reversed by SCOTUS.
“To me, a wedding is a symbol of one of the most important relationships any person can be in,” Phillips claimed.
“For the commission to deny me to be able to create the cakes that I choose to, and be able to decline to create the ones I did because of my faith was very hard, because they ordered me to start creating these cakes or stop making wedding cakes,” he continued. “Weddings were about 40 percent of our business at the time. So it was a huge financial hit to drop that wedding business, as well as the people that worked for me at the time.”
Phillips added that it was “difficult to stay in business” following the commission’s ruling. Prior to the civil rights body’s ruling siding with Craig and Mullins, the bakery had 10 employees. Just months later, it was down to four.
The Attorney General proclaimed that under Trump’s presidency, people like Phillips would “no longer be an afterthought.”
“The Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot nor can our freedoms be confined to our basements,” he said. “Under this administration, the federal government is not just reacting — we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBTQ group which defended Phillips in court, praised the Justice Department’s actions.
“Too many of the clients ADF represents are risking their businesses, their life savings, and their safety to follow their conscience,” claimed Kristen Waggoner, ADF’s senior vice president of U.S. Legal Division, in a statement. “All Americans should be free to peacefully live and act consistent with their convictions and faith without threat of government punishment.”
“Freedom of speech and religion aren’t subject to political and cultural whims,” she added. “They are constitutional guarantees.”
The Human Rights Campaign claimed the new task force would be used not to uphold constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law but to assist groups like ADF to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The Scottsdale, AZ-based organization has drafted anti-trans bathroom bills in dozens of U.S. states.
“This taxpayer-funded task force is yet another example of [the White House] sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ people,” argued HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow in a statement. “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 Trump administration has, indeed, made its commitment to “religious liberty” clear since the president took office in January 2017.
The White House announced earlier this year it would be restructuring the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. Its mission is to allow federally funded care centers to deny services to LGBTQ people — particularly trans individuals and people with HIV — if treating these patients conflicts with their faith beliefs.
Its newest department dedicated to that goal will be headed by Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Beth Williams, Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Office of Legal Policy.
Although Sessions did not explicitly mention LGBTQ people in his speech, Panuccio’s record speaks for itself. In 2010, he was the lead attorney who represented defendants of Proposition 8 in an ultimately successful lawsuit to overturn California’s marriage equality ban.
Meanwhile, Sessions will co-chair the task force. In 1996, he fought to prevent an LGBTQ conference from being held at the University of Alabama in his position as the state’s Attorney General.
Monday’s declaration follows the State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. During the three-day “religious liberty” summit, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney criticized former President Barack Obama for supporting LGBTQ rights.
Vowing the White House would no longer advocate for queer and trans equality in Africa, Mulvaney called the previous administration’s stance “religious discrimination.”
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