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Sessions' religious liberty task force panned by civil rights groups, LGBTQ advocates

There is little precedent in modern history for Sessions' task force, presidential historian Allan Lichtman said.
Image: Attorney Gen. Sessions And Deputy Attn. Gen. Rosenstein Speak On Religious Freedom At Justice Dept. Religious Liberty Summit
Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice on Monday, July 30, 2018.Win McNamee / Getty Images

Civil rights groups and LGBTQ advocates on Tuesday tore into the Department of Justice's newly formed "religious liberty task force," slamming the move as a discriminatory affront to civil liberties masquerading as protections for people of faith.

"This task force's agenda isn’t consistent with religious freedom. Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to discriminate or harm others," Louise Melling, a deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News in a statement. "Jeff Sessions' Department of Justice is again turning that understanding of religious freedom on its head."

Melling added that the agency's guidance "encourages private groups to discriminate with government funds."

Following a speech Monday in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions said a special Justice Department detail was necessary to confront a growing cultural and political threat to the free practice of religion, supporters praised the effort as evidence that the Trump White House was making good on campaign promises to protect Christians. But detractors, including the ACLU, maintained that women, religious minorities and members of the LGBTQ community are the ones whose freedoms are under attack.

The task force will implement and enforce legal guidance the DOJ had previously provided regarding how to best apply religious liberty protections in federal law, Sessions said Monday at a religious freedom forum that the DOJ had convened. He painted a picture of a country suffering amid a "changing cultural climate," with religious people of all faiths under fire from the federal government.

“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.”

Citing 20 points of guidance his department had released in October (which were put together after Trump issued an executive order in May 2017 ordering the federal government to protect religious liberty), Sessions said his task force would "ensure all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations."

In a memo released Monday, Sessions said the task force would "facilitate department compliance" with the guidance and “develop new strategies involving litigation, policy and legislation, to protect and promote religious liberty.”

It will be co-chaired by Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy Beth Williams, and will also have representatives from at least eight other units of the Justice Department, including the Office of the Deputy Attorney General and the Civil Rights Division.

As examples of what outcomes the task force would promote, Sessions cited “the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips” — a reference to the Colorado baker whom the Supreme Court ruled this year could not be forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, and the settling of 24 civil cases by the Justice Department regarding the Obama administration’s application of the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act to religious employers.

Sessions also spoke of 11 indictments and seven convictions the agency had obtained in criminal cases regarding attacks or threats against houses of worship.

GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis said that the development exposed the "Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda as they seek to weave protections for those seeking anti-LGBTQ religious exemptions into the government."

"Though freedom of religion is a core American value, religious exemptions from adhering to nondiscrimination protections are not," she said.

Many religious freedom advocates dismissed the outspoken criticism by progressive groups against the task force. Some told NBC News the task force was designed simply to maintain consistency in how religious liberty was enforced.

“This is really an overall effort to bring consistency across the federal government when it comes to issues that affect religious freedom and religious communities,” Emilie Kao, the director of the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation and a panelist at Sessions’ summit on Monday, told NBC News.

Others, including several evangelical and religious groups, lauded the task force as an effort that would protect them from discrimination.

“With initiatives such as this, it’s clear that the Trump administration understands the dangers of government actors attempting to quarantine religious beliefs within the walls of a church instead of embracing their historical contributions to America’s public good,” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council and a longtime opponent of LGBTQ rights, tweeted.

There is little precedent in modern history for Sessions' task force, the presidential historian Allan Lichtman told NBC News, with the only similar example being George W. Bush's creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“Critics at the time regarded this as a breach of the separation of church and state and a mingling of politics and religion,” Lichtman said in an interview. He added that Sessions’ move was nevertheless groundbreaking.

“While this kind of position on the right, that our society is being polluted by secularism and Christianity needs to be defended, is long-established, what Sessions has done is something new in establishing this right within the Department of Justice," Lichtman said.