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Sessions details next steps for Justice Department's religious liberty task force

"It cannot — it will not — be tolerated," the attorney general said of attacks on people of faith in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks in Washington
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Justice Department in Washington on Oct. 25, 2018.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday announced next steps for the Justice Department's Religious Liberty Task Force, inspired by one of the Supreme Court's most important rulings on religious rights in decades.

After the nation's highest court ruled last year that states cannot refuse all financial aid to churches, Sessions said Monday that the task force would focus on rooting out "other instances" of discrimination at the federal level.

"Today I am ordering the religious liberty task force to examine — in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling — whether there are other instances in which this kind of discrimination is occurring at the federal level," Sessions, speaking to the Boston chapter of the conservative legal group The Federalist Society, said. "If so, it must, and will, stop."

Sessions claimed that "respect for religious liberty" has eroded in recent years, and the task force is necessary to defend people of faith and confront a growing cultural and political threat to the free practice of religion.

Last year, President Donald Trump directed Sessions to issue legal guidance to all federal agencies on how to protect religious liberty when executing federal laws.

After Sessions announced the creation of the task force in July, it was swiftly criticized by civil rights groups and LGBTQ advocates as a discriminatory affront to civil liberties masquerading as protections for people of faith.

In his speech Monday, just days after the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Sessions noted that since January 2017, the Justice Department has issued 14 indictments and won 10 convictions in cases where places of worship were attacked or people were targeted because of their religion. The department has also won 30 hate crime convictions over the last year, he said.

"And it could not come at a more important time," Sessions said. "We are all still reeling from the murderous rampage in Pittsburgh that took the life of 11 congregants targeted because of their faith — worshiping faithfully in their own synagogue."

He added, "This was not just an attack on the Jewish faith. It was an attack on all people of faith. And it was an attack on America’s values of protecting those of faith. It cannot — it will not — be tolerated."

Sabbath services were underway at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood when police say Robert Bowers, 46, walked inside and opened fire, killing 11 worshippers and wounding several police officers before being taken into custody. Bowers faces at least 29 felony counts, including 11 counts of obstruction of the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced in a press briefing at the White House Monday that Trump will visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday.