Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday he is creating a religious liberty task force within the Justice Department to protect religious organizations from discrimination.
The task force is an extension of President Trump’s October directive requiring government agencies to protect religious liberty even when it conflicts with government regulation. That same month, Justice formed its own guidelines, pushing for a broad interpretation of religious freedom protections, including supporting employers making hiring decisions based on their faith or objecting to providing health insurance for birth control.
Mr. Sessions offered few specifics on how the task force will operate or implement the October memorandum. He said it will facilitate coordination across government agencies to ensure religious liberties are protected; reach out to religious groups for feedback; and develop new polices and strategies to safeguard religious freedom.
The task force will also consider new lawsuits to pursue, but Mr. Sessions did not identify any potential new litigation.
Led by Mr. Sessions, the task force will be co-chaired by Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Beth Williams, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. Members from other Justice Department divisions, including Civil Rights and the Office of Legal Counsel will participate.
Mr. Sessions said the task force was necessary because the U.S. has become “less hospitable” to religious people.
“A dangerous movement, undetected by many, but real, is not challenging and eroding a great tradition of religious freedom,” he said. “There can be no doubt it’s no little matter. It must be confronted intellectually and politically, and defeated.”
During his remarks, Mr. Sessions said “nuns were being forced to buy contraceptives,” a reference to an Obama administration policy requiring that women whose insurance was provided by religious organizations had to have access to free birth control. Religious organizations, including a group of Catholic nuns, had sued the government alleging it infringed upon their religious beliefs.
“Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds are concerned about what this changing cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty in our country,” Mr. Sessions said. “President Trump heard their concern. I believe this unease among the American people is one reason he was elected.”
Mr. Sessions also praised Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who recently won a Supreme Court decision upholding his right not to make cake for a same-sex wedding. Mr. Phillips participated in a panel discussion on religious liberty after Mr. Sessions’ remarks.
Trump administration critics have long claimed the Justice Department is promoting religious freedom at the expense of gay rights.
Lucas Acosta, LGBTQ media director for the Democratic National Committee issued a statement calling the task force “just the latest assault in this administration’s continued campaign against LGBTQ people and our civil rights. This action is further proof that Republicans continue to push forward an agenda completely out of step with the American people and its values.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said that “though freedom of religion is a core American value, religious exemptions from adhering to nondiscrimination protections are not.”
But Catholic and other church leaders praised the task force’s formation.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who spoke at Monday’s announcement, emphasized the need for a partnership between religious organizations and government agencies.
“You know, there are some who claim that faith-based organizations must give up our convictions when we partner with the government to provide much needed social services, but our country is much richer when we have public-private partnerships that work well,” he said.
The conservative Family Research Council also offered its support of the task force.
“The formation of this task force puts bureaucrats on notice: you will respect the freedom of every American not only to believe but to live according to those beliefs,” said Tony Perkins, FRC president, in a statement.