President Donald Trump signed an executive order last May aimed at expanding the meaning of and the regulatory power behind the term “religious liberty.” By October, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ team at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had come up with 20 guidelines for executive agencies on how to apply so-called religious liberty protections in federal law.
“Our team embraced that challenge,” Sessions said, in the most animated moment of his speech at the Religious Liberty Summit, hosted by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Policy and its Civil Rights Division on Monday. “I gotta say, our team was enthusiastic about that challenge.”
At the summit, DOJ attorneys assured attendees they are protecting the religious rights of everyone in the United States, all while conservative Christian politicians and advocates voiced a need for stepped-up federal protections beyond those they already enjoy.
It was also a forum for Sessions to announce the next phase of Trump’s May 2017 executive order: a task force that will likely implement those very protections and, in doing so, safeguard conservative Christians’ ability to discriminate against vulnerable groups.
Sessions released very few details about the task force at the summit other than to note that the DOJ would be holding listening sessions with religious groups across the United States in the coming weeks and that the agency would make sure “our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith.”
But in an internal memo shared with Rewire.News by a press officer, the attorney general explains that in addition to continuing the DOJ’s ongoing work to implement the 20 guidelines, the task force “will also consider new initiatives that will further the Department’s work to protect and promote religious liberty.”
The memo outlines the task force’s work plan:
1) facilitate Department component compliance with the memoranda [referring to the October guidelines]; 2) address novel, recurring, or cross-cutting issues in the Department’s work implicating the memoranda; 3) facilitate interagency coordination regarding the Religious Liberty Memorandum; 4) engage in outreach to the public, religious communities, and religious liberty organizations to obtain feedback on compliance with the Religious Liberty Memorandum; and 5) develop new strategies, involving litigation, policy, and legislation, to protect and promote religious liberty.
As Sessions said in his speech, “We are going to keep going to court [to protect religious liberty] and I believe we are going to keep winning.”
Sessions will chair the task force. Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio will serve as vice chair for litigation, while Beth Williams, assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy, will serve as vice chair for policy. In her address at Monday’s summit, Williams, whose office helped produce the 20 guidelines, called them one of the DOJ’s “signature achievements” so far during the Trump administration.
The memo notes that Sessions will hand-pick representatives from various DOJ offices to make up the rest of the task force.
Though the tenor of the Religious Liberty Summit was overwhelmingly jovial, with DOJ attorneys and guest speakers—the majority from conservative Christian nonprofits—insisting that these initiatives are meant to preserve the rights of people from all faith backgrounds, Sessions cast the darkest cloud over the event, mentioning a “dangerous” cultural movement currently taking place.
“A dangerous movement, undetected by many, but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” the attorney general said. “There can be no doubt. It’s no little matter. It must be confronted, intellectually and politically, and defeated. This election, this past election, and much that has flowed from it, gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends and to confront them. Such a reversal will not just be done with electoral victories, however, but by intellectual victories.”
This invocation of a “cultural movement” belies the fact that in the past few years, the United States’ already powerful religious right movement has climbed to even more power precisely by using the term “religious liberty” as a weapon to discriminate against vulnerable groups while simultaneously depicting Christians in the United States as constantly under threat.
Indeed, there was an odd juxtaposition throughout the summit: While DOJ attorneys explained that the bulk of religion-based hate crimes they’re seeing are against Muslim and Jewish people and their houses of worship, panel speakers focused on the idea that Christian individuals and institutions in the United States are being unduly targeted because of their beliefs.
Prefacing her questions to the summit’s first panel, titled “Promise and Challenge of Religious Liberty,” moderator Kerri Kupec lamented that she often sees the term religious freedom “housed in scare quotes as if it’s not a real thing, or even worse, as if it’s a bad thing.”
Rewire.News typically uses the term “religious imposition” to more accurately describe a class of laws and regulations that seek to impose one’s religious views on someone else’s individual freedom—as in the case of a pharmacist refusing to sell emergency contraception to a customer, or a county clerk refusing to sign a same-sex couple’s marriage license.
Kupec herself is a testament to the religious right’s rise in U.S. policy making.
Until earlier this year, Kupec was the spokesperson for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal nonprofit that represented plaintiffs and defendants in legal cases that have ended in many of the landmark Supreme Court decisions defining today’s culture wars. ADF has recently seen victories in two of its high-profile cases: NIFLA v. Becerra, involving whether Christian “crisis pregnancy centers” in California must disclose the types of services they provide to pregnant women (the Supreme Court ruled that they don’t), and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The latter case involved cake-baker Jack Phillips, who was one of the speakers on Kupec’s panel; the Court recently ruled that Phillips had not violated his state’s anti-discrimination law in refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
But ADF doesn’t simply help change policy via the courts; it helps create future lawmakers and government attorneys, in part through a legal fellowship program that teaches law students how to serve Jesus in their law practice. The program also connects law students with federal and state government internships.
Kupec is now the spokesperson for the DOJ’s Office of the Solicitor General and the Civil Rights Division. ADF and other Christian conservative law firms are continuing to challenge federal, state, and local policies intended or interpreted to protect all members of the LGBTQ community, particularly trans people.
Although some of the biggest cultural fights involve members of the LGBTQ community, they were hardly discussed at the Religious Liberty Summit, save for when panelist Emilie Kao, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, claimed, “There is no lack of access problem that same-sex couples face.” Kao was referring to a same-sex couple in Michigan who sued a Catholic Charities affiliate that refused to adopt to them; Kao argued the couple was in proximity to multiple adoption agencies.
Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room at the Religious Liberty Summit was Islam, a religion that has been openly vilified by President Trump, whose recently upheld travel ban began as a call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims.” No one from the administration discussed the ban.
While the DOJ invited multiple speakers to speak on behalf of Christianity and on the public services being provided with a specifically Christian outlook, the agency did invite three speakers to speak on behalf of Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, respectively.
Asma Uddin, a fellow with the Initiative on Security and Religious Freedom at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Burkle Center for International Relations, spoke on the summit’s panel of legal and policy experts. Uddin said that, in addition to Muslims in the United States being attacked for their faith, many members of the public and lawmakers do not view Islam as a religion. Rather, she said, they see it as a political ideology, and a dangerous one at that. As Uddin pointed out, in some cases, Muslim organizations in the United States have been prevented from building mosques in certain cities.
Ilhan Cagri, a policy fellow at the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s D.C. office, who attended the summit, told Rewire.News in an interview that she felt like the entire conference was “problematic,” in that it was “Christian-centered” and seemed to ignore the religions facing more persecution in this country, such as Judaism and Islam.
Cagri said she is also concerned by the DOJ’s religious liberty guidelines created last fall, because she thinks some of them create a “slippery slope.” What if Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop had not wanted to, say, bake a cake for an interfaith couple?
“Where does it stop?” Cagri asked.
Indeed, the “religious liberty” excuse for refusing access to people—LGBTQ and otherwise—in the name of conservative Christian values is ever-expanding. In the realm of health care, for example, one in six acute-care hospital beds are in Catholic institutions, which enforce vast restrictions for people who, for example, are miscarrying or want tubal ligations. Or consider the Trump administration’s relationship with Bethany Christian Services, which had a volunteer present at the summit. The adoption agency has a problematic history that includes denying children placement with same-sex couples, but the federal government has authorized it to foster migrant children forcibly separated from their parents.
And yet, the majority of speakers at the summit would have you believe that U.S. Christians as a group are in a vulnerable position. In his speech, Sessions chastised unnamed groups for using the term “hate group” to describe a religious organization, ostensibly—though not explicitly—referring to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s categorization of the Family Research Council (FRC) as a hate group for its demonization of gay people as, among other things, pedophiles.
Sessions gave his own tacit endorsement to the FRC later that day, when he appeared on its president’s radio show to discuss his new task force. During his interview with Tony Perkins, Sessions echoed a theme of the DOJ’s Religious Liberty Summit: that people of faith should be able to exercise their beliefs in all aspects of their lives, including their work and political lives.
“Our Constitution gives us the right to speak, but it also when it comes to religion, it says you can’t prohibit the free exercise of our religious beliefs,” Sessions told Tony Perkins. “That’s what I think has been lost. People have emphasized the prohibition of establishing a national church but they haven’t emphasized sufficiently and have forgotten the guarantee that you can freely exercise your religion .… We want every minister and every Christian and every person of any other faith to feel like that they can express themselves and within the constitutional provisions exercise their religion freely.”
Sessions’ conversation with FRC is likely the first of many with religious groups to help further their agendas in the name of “religious liberty.” Of course, it remains to be seen whether Sessions and his new task force will welcome every example of religious exercise. The question is: Which groups will the attorney general consult with, and at the cost of which other groups’ liberties?