Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force on Monday that will ensure that the Justice Department is prioritizing the rights of religious people and groups in its policies and legal battles by enforcing his “religious liberty” memo issued last fall.
Sessions told a crowd attending the Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice headquarters that there was “a dangerous movement” eroding religious liberties and that “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 cited the legal challenge by the Little Sisters of the Poor over its religious objections as a Catholic organization to paying for health insurance that covers contraception and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case dealing with a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Sessions mentioned the Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu religions and proclaimed that the DOJ would protect all adherents from discrimination. But in arguing that it was an “unease” over a “changing cultural climate” that motivated Trump voters and the administration’s religious-liberty policies, Sessions seemed to refer more to the complaints of the Christian right. “[Trump] said he respected people of faith and he promised to protect them in the free exercise of their faith,” Sessions said. “He declared we would say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
In October 2017, Sessions released a vague memo that instructed federal agencies to observe 20 “principles of religious liberty.” Activists for LGBTQ and women’s rights worried at the time that the proclamation gave broad permission for religious groups to ignore federal civil rights laws. But in reality, as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote months later, Sessions did not seem to have the authority to undermine anti-discrimination laws, and the memo seemed to have no legal force behind it.
In Monday’s announcement, Sessions said that the DOJ would work to ensure its employees “know their duties to accommodate people of faith” and put the 2017 memo into action. “Under this administration, the federal government is not just reacting—we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith,” he said. “Religious Americans are no longer an afterthought.”