On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new task force dedicated to protecting religious liberty in the United States.
The task force arose as a way to implement President Donald Trump’s executive order from last May adamantly directing his agencies to protect religious liberty.
“Freedom of religion is indeed our ‘first freedom’ — being the first listed right in the First Amendment,” Sessions said during the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Religious Liberty Summit on Monday.
Sessions’ speech warned of a “dangerous movement” that threatened to upend the tradition of religious freedom deeply rooted in the nation’s founding.
“We have gotten to the point where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law, where ministers are fearful to affirm — as they understand it — holy writ from the pulpit, and where one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them ‘hate groups,'” Sessions said in an apparent jab at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Founding Fathers, Sessions said, “clearly recognized an individual’s relationship with God is a natural right. They explicitly said it precedes the existence of the state and is not subject to the state’s control.”
He went on to lament recent challenges to religious liberty like the contraception mandate — requiring religious entities like the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide birth control — that Trump rolled back at the end of last year.
Watch his speech below:
Sessions’ new task force advanced what appeared to be an aggressive and unprecedented effort by the executive branch to protect religious liberty in the U.S.
“I don’t recall any DOJ ever hosting a religious liberty summit before,” Jeremy Dys, the deputy general counsel at First Liberty, told IJR after attending the summit. “I think that says a tremendous amount about General Sessions as well as the president.”
Dys, whose organization represents religious individuals in court, saw Sessions’ program as a clarion signal that the administration would protect the liberties of Americans like his clients.
The new task force, Dys said, would institutionalize the government’s commitment to religious liberty as well as provide a more focused path for combatting religious discrimination within federal agencies like the Department of Defense.
He specifically pointed to the controversy surrounding placing Bibles on a table respecting prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
As IJR previously reported, the Air Force recently followed a request from Mikey Weinstein — a veteran who leads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) — to remove the Bible from a table in Wyoming:
— Mikey Weinstein (@MikeyWeinstein) July 18, 2018
“You need to have this task force that goes in and meets with the different agency heads and says, ‘Look, this is what the guidance is, and here’s what it means for you,'” Dys explained.
Sessions’ new task force would likely translate into a renewed focus on protecting religious entities that refuse to engage in activities — like abortion, transgender medical procedures, or paying for contraception — promoted by some left-leaning organizations.
News of Sessions’ announcement prompted swift condemnation from organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America, which advocates for fewer restrictions on abortion access:
Let’s be real about this “Religious Liberty Task Force.” What the administration — which also adopted a Muslim ban — desires isn’t “religious liberty.” It’s another license to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, communities of color, and so many more. https://t.co/y6DTe9peTb
— Planned Parenthood Action (@PPact) July 30, 2018
Make no mistake—this “Religious Liberty Task Force” is another extremist attempt to deny people the care and services that they need. The Trump admin is out to refuse abortion care, birth control access, and LGBTQ-inclusive care to the American people. https://t.co/5hTIuNepvs
— NARAL (@NARAL) July 30, 2018
Reminder: Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to harm others.
The Department of Justice has no business licensing discrimination against LGBT people, women, and religious minorities. https://t.co/KXtjusL2F7
— ACLU (@ACLU) July 30, 2018
“Make no mistake—this “Religious Liberty Task Force” is another extremist attempt to deny people the care and services that they need,” NARAL tweeted Monday.