Attorney General Session’s “Religious Liberty Task Force”: DOJ Evangelists for the Religious Right

Cross-posted to Medium.com
On Monday, July 30th, the Department of Justice (DOJ) held a “Religious Liberty Summit” at which Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department would be developing a “Religious Liberty Task Force.” Attorney General Sessions explained that the task force “will help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance” — referencing a DOJ guidance document on “Principles of Religious Liberty” issued in October of 2017 — “by ensuring that all Justice Department components… are holding 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.”

Attorney General Sessions notes that this is the “next step” for the DOJ and the Trump administration to ensure the application of the “religious liberty guidance” issued by the Department of Justice in the fall of 2017. The guidance document that the task force is charged with implementing was promulgated in accordance with President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” President Trump signed the Executive Order in question in a ceremony on May 4th, 2017, the “National Day of Prayer,” in the White House Rose Garden. The guidance document, “Principles of Religious Liberty” was issued on October 7, 2017, from Attorney General Sessions in a Memorandum for all Executive Departments and Agencies, available here.

While “religious liberty guidance” and the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” may sound innocuous, they are far from it; the guidelines speak to an interpretation of religious liberty that is frequently used by the Religious Right to deny and undercut the rights of marginalized individuals in the United States. In a statement released by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project on the “religious liberty guidance” last fall, our scholars analyzed and characterized its edicts as such:

This document… misinterpret[s] the meaning and scope of religious liberty under the Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), demonstrating this administration’s continued commitment to elevating a particular set of religious beliefs over the health, safety and equality rights of women, LGBTQ[+] people, people of color, and religious minorities.

The “Principles of Religious Liberty” memorandum issued by the Department of Justice in October 2017 contains several examples of how the rhetoric of “religious liberty” has been mobilized by the Christian Right to enable individuals and businesses to deny rights and services to persons based on their religious beliefs. This insidious tactic undercuts equity and equality measures guaranteed by the constitution and a wide range of national and state laws. Cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop — wherein baker Jack Phillips refused to bake a cake for the wedding of a same-sex couple on the basis that doing so would unduly burden his religious beliefs– have raised the visibility of this issue. What’s at stake is far more serious than cake, however: Similar cases include that of EEOC v. Harris, in which a funeral home fired Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee, for expressing her gender identity through clothing. The Funeral home asserted that Stephens’ gender expression was in violation of the Funeral home’s “closely held religious beliefs.” While the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Equal Employment Commission and Aimee Stephens, a petition has been filed for the case to be heard by the Supreme Court.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project has written extensively on the DOJ guidance in the DOJ Memorandum on “Principles of Religious Liberty,” as well as President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which instructed Attorney General Sessions to develop the guidance. Our analyses have demonstrated how the Trump Administration and the Attorney General have sought to coopt the meaning of “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” in order to privilege certain conservative religious views as a form of white Christian supremacy:

In April of this year, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project co-authored a report with the Center for American Progress, “Religious Liberty for a Select Few.” The report, available here, highlights how the actions of the Justice Department enable and promote discrimination in and by the Federal Government using the tools of the Justice Department and the Executive Branch.

The report, “Religious Liberty for a Select Few” follows a series of earlier works produced by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, which address concerns about how the Trump Administration is using a limited vision of “religious liberty” to promote a specific agenda. These works are outlined below:

· In October 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project published a statement critiquing Attorney General Sessions “Principles of Religious Liberty” issued in a DOJ Memorandum for all Executive Departments and Agencies on October 7th, 2017.

· In July 2017, Ashe McGovern, Legislative and Policy Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, wrote on the potential harms of the — at the time — anticipated guidance on religious freedom from Attorney General Sessions, in a blog post, “Trump’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others.”

· In May 2017, Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, wrote a blog post addressing President Trump’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty and Freedom of Speech titled, “’Religious Liberty’ Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom.”

· In May 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project released a joint statement with the Council on American Islamic Relations addressing concerns about the potential impacts of President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” on religious minorities, available here.

· In January 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project published “Church, State, and the Trump Administration,” a report focusing on the promises of the Trump campaign related to faith and religion, and the actions undertaken during President Trump’s early tenure in regards to faith and the separation of Church and State.

The DOJ’s “Religious Liberty Task Force” will no doubt continue the administration’s work of advancing particular conservative religious beliefs about sexual health and autonomy, intimate and family partnerships, and pregnancy under the guise of religious liberty. This so-called “freedom” comes at a steep price, however, particularly for women, sexual and gender minorities, people of color, and religious minorities.


A full list of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s writing on the way the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions actions regarding “Religious Freedom” and “Religious Liberty” follows below:

Report: Religious Liberty for a Select Few: The Justice Department Is Promoting Discrimination Across the Federal Government
Sharita Gruberg, Frank J. Bewkes, Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Katherine Franke, Claire Markham
April 3, 2018
https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/reports/2018/04/03/448773/religious-liberty-select/

Columbia Law Experts Denounce DOJ Religious Liberty Guidance as Attack on Religious Liberty and Fundamental Equality Rights
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
October 6, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/10/06/columbia-law-experts-denounce-doj-religious-liberty-guidance-as-attack-on-religious-liberty-and-fundamental-equality-rights/

Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others
Ashe McGovern
July 20, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/07/20/religiousfreedomharmslgbtq/

Joint Statement by CAIR and PRPCP on President Trump’s EO on “Religious Liberty
The Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York and Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
May 15, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/05/15/joint-statement-by-cair-and-prpcp-on-president-trumps-eo-on-religious-liberty/

“Religious Liberty” Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom
Elizabeth Reiner Platt
May 4, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/05/04/religious-liberty-executive-order-will-limit-not-enhance-religious-freedom/

Church, State, and the Trump Administration
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
January 30, 2017
https://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/gender-sexuality/PRPCP/prpcp_trump_church_state.pdf