Jeff Sessions announces new 'Religious Liberty Task Force' at Department of Justice

Attorney general warns US has become 'less hospitable to people of faith'

Emily Shugerman
New York
Wednesday 01 August 2018 15:55 BST
Jeff Sessions announces new religious liberty task force

The US Department of Justice has created a “religious liberty task force” to help implement the Trump administration’s new religious guidance.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that the country had become "less hospitable to people of faith” as he announced its formation at a Justice Department Religious Liberty Summit.

"A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” he said. “There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated."

He added that it would help Justice Department officials uphold new religious liberty guidance in the cases they bring, the arguments they make in court and the policies they adopt.

Issued in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order last year, the guidelines prohibited the government from punishing anyone who acted “in accordance with one’s religious beliefs”.

Advocates warned at the time that these stringent protections could become a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ people.

The task force will be co-chaired by Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams and acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio. Mr Panuccio previously represented supporters of a failed attempt to ban same-sex marriage in California.

Responding to the task force’s formation, the Human Rights Campaign criticised Mr Sessions and the White House for “sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ people”.

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It also accused Mr Sessions of standing “shoulder-to-shoulder with anti-LGBTQ extremists,” in what was likely a reference to the Alliance Defending Freedom – an anti-LGBTQ organisation that backed the summit.

The advocacy group's legal director Sarah 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."

In his speech, Mr Sessions highlighted the “plight” of Jack Phillips, a conservative Christian baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because of his religious beliefs.

The US Supreme Court ruled last month that he could not be forced to bake the cake.

Mr Sessions also alluded to an Obama-era policy that required employers to include contraceptive coverage in their employee health care plans.

The attorney general said that the US had "seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives”. The Trump administration has exempted religious groups from the contraceptive coverage requirement.

Women’s rights groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-choice America also criticised the guidelines and task force.

“Make no mistake – this ‘Religious Liberty Task Force’ is another extremist attempt to deny people the care and services that they need,” NARAL tweeted. “The Trump admin is out to refuse abortion care, birth control access, and LGBTQ-inclusive care to the American people.”

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